JAKARTA, INDONESIA—When I ask Indonesian bureaucrats about the latest proclamations from some group concerned about the environment, I often get the same question: “Why are you journalists so close to the activists?” They complain that reporters view them as “the bad guys.”

Is it true? Perhaps. Environmental journalists here love covering reports from advocacy organizations, with all their strident accusations against the government, as well as most environmental protests. Sometimes, we even become part of the protests, or try to solve environmental problems ourselves.

This is largely a result of desperation. Irvan Riza, a program editor at KBR68H Radio in Jakarta, says the newsroom there is tired of covering environmental problems and waiting the government to act. Deforestation, for instance, is a major, ongoing problem in the country, so the station joined the “Tree Adoption Program” in Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park, which aims to stop locals from logging by giving them an alternative livelihood. Managed by KBR68H’s sister station, Green Radio FM, revenues from the program allow villagers to plant trees, purchase livestock, and install solar panels.

“By starting the project, we pushed the government to finally install electricity for the farmers we helped,” Irvan explained. But when I suggested that the station’s involvement made “green activists” out of the journalists there, he rejected the label, arguing that because paid advertisements run during its tree-adoption related programming, it qualifies as a standard commercial enterprise, not a nonprofit advocacy operation.

Kalimantan Review (KR), a monthly magazine on the island of Borneo, accepts the activist label, however. Launched in 1992 by the Institut Dayakologi, KR described itself as “advocacy media” delivering information to the island’s indigenous Dayak people about palm plantations, mines, and other projects that destroy local forests. Under the dictatorial Suharto government, it operated as a form of underground community media. The collapse of the regime in 1998 gave Indonesia greater press freedom, and KR no longer needed to remain underground. While it has moved into the more standard role of government watchdog, however, it continues to reflexively oppose most government actions and policies and is still considered to be “anti government.”

“It’s hard for us, because we want to do what the press should do: cover both sides fairly,” says Dominikus Uyub, KR’s chief editor. During the Suharto regime, most outlets quoted only pro-government sources, so his outlet did the opposite. Because of that, it now has trouble getting those government voices on record, and so continues to give more space to “the people.”

The problem is that KR has a unique double role. The so-called “advocacy magazine” not only informs local about important issues, but also tries to defend and empower Dayaks whom it sees as the abused victims of powerful economic, political, and military interests. Therefore, KR sees nothing wrong in accepting many local activists living in remote areas as contributors and giving them press identification after providing some journalism training.

That practice can lead to problems, however, as it did when contributing writer Vitalis Andi was arrested in February 2010 while covering a public protest and then sued by Sinar Mas, a company opening a palm plantation in West Kalimantan. KR sent Andi to cover the protest as an objective observer, but the police accused him of crossing the line and charged him with vandalism. The problem, as Uyub himself concedes, is that many people know Andi as “an activist who happens to be a journalist.” That label meant KR could not defend him by appealing to the Press Freedom Law, unless they could prove Andi was there as journalist, and while a lower court dismissed the charges against Andi, Sinar Mas has appealed the decision and the legal battle continues.

Aristides Katoppo, a senior environmental journalist at Sinar Harapan, a newspaper in Jakarta, said the strain of activism in environmental journalism is rooted in how the beat grew in the country. Environmental issues were alien to Indonesia until 1972 when President Suharto—inspired by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden—established the Ministry of Development and Environment. He chose economic expert Emil Salim as minister and charged with finding a balance between Indonesia’s fast growing population, development needs, and environmental protection.

Lacking environmental knowledge at that time, Salim gathered journalists and whatever local experts he could find (most of the local academics had more expertise in agriculture, biology, sociology, or even architecture than environmental issues at the time) to learn about and pioneer environmental awareness in the country, soliciting input and cooperation from an organization called the Group for Environmental Conservation of Indonesia, or Hukli, to use its Indonesian acronym. They essentially “learned by doing.”

“Why did Emil invite journalists to join the group? Before the ministry was formed, many journalists also happened to be environmentalists since they were students, during which they used to advocate for people with environmental problems,” said Katoppo, a pioneer in the country’s green movement. Journalists became used to carrying out underground advocacy activities when they were not able to publish their stories. Salim saw their participation as a chance to give him perspectives on real environmental problems happening in field.

Later, with Salim’s support, the experts formed the country’s first green NGO, known as Walhi, which is still one of its most famous. Meanwhile, the journalists who were involved—like Katoppo, George Junus Aditjondro, formerly of Tempo magazine, and Don Hasman from the now defunct Mutiara tabloid—chose to start pioneering green journalism in Indonesia. It was a big step for a country still under dictatorship. Many journalists faced suppression under the Suharto regime, but at the same time, green journalists and Walhi worked hand-in-hand with Salim during the seventies and eighties. They were invited to many environment ministerial meetings and contributed to developing many environmental policies.

This cozy relationship more or less ended when everyone finally realized that green also means money. After climate change became a big issue in the country in 2007—when a high-profile United Nations climate change summit was held in Bali—more ministries took interest and established new bodies and councils to weigh in on the issue. Today in Indonesia, the Forestry Ministry, Environment Ministry, the National Climate Change Council, the President’s Development Monitoring and Control Unit, the Economic Coordination Ministry, and the National Development Strategic Plan Agency all play a role in developing policies on the issue. In addition, the focus on fighting climate change through the UN’s REDD program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) has brought many more stakeholders into the discussion, as it involves managing forests in and around at least 33,000 villages, and numerous mining and plantation concessions.

With more government bodies involved, green journalists slowly lost their role in helping to formulate environmental policies and became outsiders alongside many local green activists. Their harmonious relationship with their government is breaking, while they’re becoming closer to the activists. Still, environmental journalism is growing in Indonesia, and not everyone agrees that activism should be part of that growth.

In 2006, the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ) was formed as a professional non-advocacy membership organization (full disclosure: I sit on the organization’s board). SIEJ focuses on building the capacity of journalists to cover environmental issues, and not taking sides, so that more journalists can help explain the complicated issues in a balanced fashion to the public. “Taking sides in any statement or environmental event isn’t what SIEJ should do, but of course we allow our members to follow their own personal views,” said IGG Maha Adi, the group’s director.

Katoppo agrees that journalists should be allowed to express their own views, but sees nothing wrong with taking part in statements and protests as well. “I don’t believe in the perspective of news just being news, because it treats people as a business commodity, with journalists in the role of selling [or sensationalizing] news about them,” he said. “We have to understand there’s a social responsibility along with every news story we publish.”

Moreover, Katoppo said, government or business entities—including mining and plantation interests—run many Indonesian media outlets, leading to potential bias in their coverage. So he argues that journalists staking out advocacy positions in favor of local communities and the environment may lead to more balance. “Objectivity in news means we have to base our story on truth and facts, but we should have a clear basis of taking the side of the public interest,” he said.

Many journalists disagree. Ignatius Haryanto, a younger but still senior journalist who teaches journalism at several national universities, thinks there should be a clear line between being an activist and a reporter. “Both roles will not always be in harmony. There may be potential conflicts of interest from the dual roles that can affect the news,” he said. “You can’t write news that you made yourself.”

Haryanto thinks it’s fine for journalists as state citizens to have their own views, but that doesn’t mean expressing them as part of the news. Journalists already take a position as part of their job by selecting what issues to cover and contributing needed information for the public and so there’s no need to go further and assume an activist identity. As for writers like KR’s Andi, Haryanto suggests he choose one role and not the other, without switching back and forth as he sees fit.

The environmental journalism community in Indonesia seems to be divided over whether to have an overlapping role as an activist. But where ever they stand on this point, environmental journalists are still clearly playing a big role in the country’s green movement: some by reporting the news, and others choosing to act further.

Correction: The text of this article was changed to reflect the fact that Emil Salim did not initiate the formation of Hukli, as originally stated, but rather solicited the group’s cooperation to foster environmental awareness in Indonesia.

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Veby Mega Indah is a freelance journalist who writes about environmental and climate change issues for Reuters AlertNet, IPS, Indian Today Media Network, Asia Media and SIEJ News Website. She is based in Jakarta and a board member of the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists.