The Future of Investigative Journalism and Its Challenges in Indonesia

IFC seminarI am a self-proclaimed (pseudo) journalist. I have no journalism membership card or such a thing to show people that I am one. That explains why I prefer calling myself a blogger, or a citizen journalism activist, enthusiast. An euphimism of being a mediocre journo, so to speak.

In Indonesia, which seems to be one of the emerging nations in terms of press freedom (instead of press independence and quality), things are changing a lot in the recent decade. The breeze of press freedom is the best we can have after the ordeals the nation had gone through in Soeharto Regime. I as a high school student at the time when Soeharto was dethroned recall the euphoria. New mass media mushroomed, thrived and almost everyone enjoyed this, with perhaps the public officials as an exceptional group. The transparency and press as one of the democracy pillars just like were dreams coming true.

Yet, the Internet also brings along a bunch of consequences for the nation in general. One of the most prominent is that Indonesia is now facing a crisis. What crisis was he fussing about? Indonesia, if you may not be conversant with the press development of the country, is in dire need of more qualified journalists who are capable of dissecting and analyzing news without sacrificing journalism code of conducts and work ethics. As Antara (Indonesia’s news agency) CEO Syafid Hadi put it, Indonesia badly needs these competent young journalists. He added that most of the novice journos he has encountered are familiar with a great deal of current issues but only in superficial fashion.

Instant journalism, as best shown and exemplified by the most celebrated and most frequently accessed new site in the country founded by Budiono Darsono (another typical Javanese gentleman’s name other than the vice president’s), has surged. Ade Armando argued, “Some blame the crisis on the rise of detik-like journalism, which emphasizes more on the speed than accuracy.” He, along with other well known figures in Indonesian press, spoke to the audience of a seminar on good governance, journalism ethics, and investigative journalism at Kempinski Hotel, Jakarta, Tuesday (May 21st, 2013).

Armando did make a good point there. I myself experienced this first hand, almost on daily basis. Online journalism as shown by Detik to a certain extent has oversimplified the real meaning of journalism.

I asked Syaiful Hadi as he sat down next to me after delivering his opening remarks that morning in an overly air-conditioned ball room,” But sir, is it possible investigative journalism like this applicable to online news sites? I doubt that… Everyone knows we online journos must generate like 8-10 pieces of content every single working day” He bit his lips, looking uncertain with what words he should’ve picked to address my query, “Maybe you’re right. This is just not for every and each press institution.” Considering how exhaustive the research and field investigation needed for one high quality, objective report may become, online journos cannot risk losing their job because of the time consuming investigative writing. I, too, cannot do this at work.

It is no wonder that analyst Ade Armando called this: “luxury”. It is such a luxury for a journalist to be provided time to solely focus on producing an investigative report like the ones which Tempo Magazine (known for its earth-shattering headlines and highly investigative content) has been publishing despite sporadic mass purchases done stealthily by some unknown buyers (presumably people who are not in favor of the news in it) or sudden raids and night attacks by criminals doing that for pay.

And the luxury can only be served to these aspiring journos by their decision makers, like-minded leaders at our workplaces, meaning not all employers, stakeholders, etc. can enjoy it. Most of journos will work and are working and will keep on working like reporting machines. They type day and night on their old, sluggish, cumbersome laptops or press the tiny keypads of the BlackBerrys frantically in the hope of not passing the deadlines.

Investigative journalism, according to Abdullah Alamudi (Board of Trustees of the Legal Aid Center for Press, Center for Media Development, a faculty member of Lembaga Pers Dr. Soetomo), would in turn embody the press freedom, something we must highly value and be guarded together. “Press freedom is what still remains from the 1998 Reformation,” he added. While the rest go astray, freedom of press is one of the very few things that we ought to feel so thankful for. It sets us apart from countries like mainland China, Vietnam, the former Myanmar or even the far more prosperous Singapore. Indonesians may take this press freedom for granted but must we lose it first only to learn how invaluable this could turn? Alamudi praised Press Law imposed since 1999 for being the best collection of rules related to press that Indonesia has ever enforced since Dutch Colonialism Era.

Later, investigative journalism serves as a means of revealing what public has to know about good and bad governance not only in public domain but also private sectors, which are at times also tied to the public side. In Indonesia, perception of corruption is dissimilar from what we may see outside. Here, corruption seems to merely encompasses the public institutions; whereas, the private entities, business people are ‘immune’ to such accusations. However, people may forget that some black-hat private companies and their top officials have robbed the state as badly as what the public officials have done. Alamudin took one private company as an example of this crime type. The (my hunch is a cigarette) company is said to have committed public fraud after launching a misleading advertisement on a national scale saying it managed to plant 1 million trees scattered throughout the country. Bad cases of corporate governance also needs to be told to people.

So if you think that investigative journalism is about reporting from both sides, I can safely say you are wrong. What investigative journalism means is that a journalist must be scouring and digging and sniffing what is unsaid, untold, or even deliberately concealed by those who try to hide facts. And that is such a daunting task. Not all journalists are able to take this responsibility.

Alamudin also mentioned an impact of the enlarging role of stakeholders (capital owners, or whatever the terms are) on press. Ade Armando deeemed this to be a consequence of press industrialization. As press enters territory of industry, the clash between stakeholders and news room becomes inevitable. Political and economic interests of stakeholders begin infiltrating press around the globe. And once it has begun, there is no ‘undo’ button to press. These days, press has to struggle much harder to stay neutral and independent of all these interventions. In short, the idealism in journalism and industry always have and always will collide with each other.

To date, there has not been much of investigative journalism works around in Indonesia. Most of them are not even investigative, but more like reportages on everyday issues like foods poison level, forged daily care products produced and traded by irresponsible groups of insane profit-oriented men. These are then labelled as investigative by producers and TV stations. To the laymen, these all are ‘investigative’ enough, but to analyst Ade Armando, these are hoaxes not even deserving the title. He was worried it would blur the real definition of investigative journalism in the minds of Indonesian viewers.

Another criticism was hurled by Ahmad Kusaeni, Editor in Chief of Antara News Agency. He cynically said,” Indonesian journalists should stop reporting on investigations (conducted by the police) and start investigating and reporting their own results.” That sort of hit the bull’s eye.

Putu Anggreni of Daily Investor had her own proposition on investigative journalism. She insisted that “good news is good news”, as opposed to the more commonplace “bad news is good news” mindset. She endorses investigative, yet more positive journalism for example CSR (corporate social responsibility). This more favorable point of view is dubbed as “PR journalism” by one of Aliansi Jurnalis Indonesia (AJI) members. Flowery words, nice headlines, leaving positive impression that maybe too good to be true to really occur. I have been so familiar with this kind of journalism simply because I am part of it. I get paid to write nicely about my employer. No criticism is accepted. Even news content about business rivals’ achievement are not to be published on our sites. It happened once, when we undeliberately published a piece about an unexpected event at our own project. One of the directors called frantically and asked us to as soon as possible unpublish the news. Just like that, and we did unpublish the very thing.

Then I came into complete realization that investigative journalism is something impossible for me unless I can leave where I work at now. And the focus of the questioning is subsequently shifting to whether I am entirely ready to perform such a job (because being a competent investigative journalist is easier said than done) or not.

I could not agree more when Sarah Lacy of Pando Daily said she got terribly sick with the copy-and-paste or (slightly better) rewriting journalism. She reckoned all the journalists who are sooo obsessed with hits, page views and visitors number as well as speed over accuracy, in-depth analysis, and investigatively enlightening content are insults to their own intellect, and also readers’ .

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