Inside the Indonesian Newsroom: The Good, the Bad and the Hopeful

(May 3, 2013) -- Indonesia remains a nation in flux. So, too, its journalism. Fifteen years after the country’s long-time strongman and president, Suharto, was overthrown and press restrictions were eased, Indonesian journalists continue to face a host of pressures: The pay is still lousy, the challenges still complex, the physical dangers still real.

But there are encouraging recent trends, too, including that significantly more journalists today believe that they have more freedom to do their job than just three years ago, up from 29% to 44%. And some simply interesting trends, also. For example: Like their nation as a whole, Indonesian journalists are becoming more religiously conservative—even as they staunchly oppose religious militancy.

These findings are from a comparison between two surveys I supervised, one in 2009 and one conducted last year, both in partnership with the Pantau Foundation, an Indonesian journalism group. The surveys are part of a study of journalists across the Muslim world. As I wrote in CJR in 2009,

Media drives public opinion. And in Indonesia, that public is being buffeted by, on one hand, a government that is arguably the most successful model of democracy in the Muslim world, and, on the other, the forces of Islamist militancy.

That remains largely true. In that first survey, we asked 600 journalists scattered across the vast archipelago questions aimed at better understanding the state of journalism in the world’s most populous Muslim country, and the attitudes of reporters and editors on a range of political and social issues.

We recently went back and asked many of the same questions of another 600 journalists. We found a mix—for the journalists and the publics they serve—of good news and bad.

Good News: Although control of the media by a handful of powerful business oligarchs still ranked the second greatest challenge to the industry, the number of journalists citing it as a critical problem was marginally down, by about 5 percent.

Bad News: Roughly the same number of journalists (about 43 percent) cited government control as the greatest challenge to their industry.

Good News: The percentage worried about “poor journalistic ethics” dropped by 8 percent, the perception of corruption among journalists was down 15 percent, and marginally fewer (6 percent) were concerned that a lack of journalist professionalism was undermining the industry.

Bad News: The figures for all those categories are still off the charts: Ethics (79 percent), journalistic corruption (53 percent), and lack of professionalism (84 percent).

Good News: Concerns about pressures from violent religious groups and business tycoons were both down slightly, by single digits.

Bad News: About half say physical violence remains a major threat, almost as many point to religious militants as the source. And almost a third still complain of pressures from business tycoons.

In 2009, we found that certain fundamental Western-style journalism values—such as accuracy, balance, and professionalism—were the gold standard to which Indonesian journalists aspired. But the latest findings underline the fact that, as we have found in the Arab world and Pakistan, notions of fairness and balance can often be shaped by the political and social milieu in which journalists operate, dictated by business realities, political pressures, and cultural or religious outlook.

The mission of Indonesian journalism embodies a socially engaged agenda, which has not changed since the last survey. “Educate the public” and “give voice to the common people” are at the top of the list of what Indonesian journalists see as their primary mission, followed—as before—by “support national/regional development,” “analyze complex issues,” and “support political change.” And while they aspire to fairness and balance, the majority still believes they should be allowed to take part in political protests.

Meanwhile, Indonesian society has become more conservative in recent years, and that also appears to be true among its reporters and editors. Even though fewer journalists identified themselves as “religious” versus “secular” Muslims, their views on a range of religious issues have shifted to the right since 2009. Support for sharia (religious) law increased from 37 percent to 45 percent, and the number of journalists who believe women should wear the jilbab head covering and those supporting polygamy both increased by about five percent, with close to half supporting the jilbab and about a quarter in favor of polygamy.

Most striking, the journalists exhibited intolerant views on a range of new questions. Some examples:

• 70 percent agreed with a law that effectively bans Islamic groups that diverge from orthodox teachings;

• 59 percent agreed that one such group, the Ahmadiyah, should be outlawed;

• Almost half agreed with a religious fatwa calling for a ban on pluralism, liberalism, and secularism; and,

• About the same number concurred with another fatwa warning that Shia Muslims pose a threat to Indonesia’s Sunni Muslim majority.

But beware of generalizing: More than half were against a measure making it more difficult for Christians to build churches. And the percentage who said the government should allow the existence of mass organizations that espouse radical Islamist views plummeted—from half to less than 10 percent.

Meanwhile, just 7 percent agreed that terrorism stems from “disillusionment with the Muslim condition” and a majority criticized the government’s failure to protect Shia Muslims and members of the Ahmadiyah sect from attacks by Muslim militants.

That underlines the fact that, while the influence of conservative Islam may be on the rise in the Indonesian newsroom, to most Indonesian journalists, those who carry out violence in the name of religion are anathema.

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