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Australian journalism in Southeast Asia

9 Mar 2010 08:04

Fergus notes the luke-warm feelings Australians have for Indonesia (reciprocated by Indonesians). One of the explanations of this attitude is the carping, condescending and critical tone of Australian journalistic commentary on Indonesia.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's problems with parliament have been consistently reported here as being about corruption in the rescue of the mid-tier Bank Century while Indonesia was caught up in the backwash of the Global Financial Crisis in late 2008.

In fact, the story is one of pure politics. One parliamentary faction wants to unseat the reformist Vice-President so that they can have his job. Another faction wants to roll the Minister of Finance, because her success in reforming corporate taxation and governance is threatening their commercial interests.

After four months of pernickety inquiry, parliament has found nothing more than a couple of minor administrative peccadilloes in the rescue of Bank Century. No hint of corruption on the part of the Vice-President or the Minister has been found. Nevertheless, for purely political reasons, the parliament (where the President's party has nowhere near a majority) has called (subscription required) for their dismissal 'over a corruption scandal that has tarnished the President's reformist image'.

If this were happening in the Australian parliament, it would be reported for what it is: pure politics. Not pretty, very distracting for the President, but part of the messy process of democracy. The Australian press, however, either doesn't know or finds the corruption story fits its prejudices better.

Photo by Flickr user patrikmloeff, used under a Creative Commons license.

COMMENTS

12 Mar 2010 14:50

Greg Earl is the Asia Pacific editor at the Australian Financial Review.

After almost 20 years of writing about Indonesia I’ll take Stephen Grenville’s admonition for being ‘carping, condescending and critical’ on the chin. At least I can use it as evidence for the defence next time I’m accused of being a member of the Indonesia Lobby.

But split personalities aside, Stephen’s familiar criticism of Australian journalists does raise a few issues after a week of debate about the bilateral relationship which began right here with Fergus Hanson’s work.

There could be more diverse coverage of Indonesia (including by my newspaper which doesn’t have a staff correspondent there any more) and I lament the fact there are often more Australian journos in the Bali courts these days than in Jakarta, let alone places like Sumatra. But there are still far more Australian reporters in Indonesia than Indonesian reporters here.

The first thing that I find so frustrating from the people who can instantly identify the ‘carping, condescending and critical’ journalism is that they don’t turn the page or flick to another news outlet on the same day to see the range of material in the Australian media at any one time on Indonesia.

Japan or India can only dream about getting the same sort of coverage. Last week was a case in point. I don’t think any fair assessment of the week’s output would find that Stephen’s three Cs prevailed.

Indeed I was struck by the way some of the most critical commentary through the week came from Hal Hill (subscribers only) and Ross McLeod (East Asia Forum) — two economists who come straight out of the same mould as Stephen. So I guess by definition they wouldn’t be carping or condescending.

The second thing that guardians of the relationship have to get used to is that as we go down the track of more integration between the two countries in whatever sector of life that proves possible there is likely to be more unruly commentary from people who are new to the territory — from journalism and elsewhere.

That is the nature of the sort of diverse and growing relationship that we all desire. It is not going to be a rarified discussion on fora like this. It is going to be at the soccer or on cable TV — where the anchors were pleasantly surprised that SBY could tell a good joke.

Stephen presumably feels that all journalists should view Indonesia through the same prism of successful long term macroeconomic performance that is his basic frame of reference. [fold]

People like him fail to appreciate that journalists are equally besieged by others who are as passionate about Indonesia as he is. It is just that they want us to use other prisms like long term human rights achievements.

Those who think that daily media practitioners are an unreflective crowd might be interested to know that just as Stephen was penning his comments last Monday a group of Indonesian and Australian editors were sitting down for a two-yearly gathering.

It’s a commendable project of the Australia Indonesia Institute that has achieved the sort of easygoing long term interaction that we all aspire to for the relationship. Bosses, colleagues and political leaders are all fair game in a discussion about current events and how the media portrays them. 

Believe me, the 3 Cs were rolled out on both sides and no one was offended.

Photo by Flickr user London Summit's photostream, used under a Creative Commons license.

COMMENTS

15 Mar 2010 12:20

President Yudhoyono's speech to Parliament (p.29) last week is a remarkable document that makes uneasy reading. 

Rudd welcomed SBY with a routine speech of mutual self-congratulation for having such a splendid relationship (p.27 of the above document). SBY responded with a sophisticated, frank and at times stern analysis of a relationship which is still very vulnerable to mutual mistrust, and still falls far short of its potential. The contrast was stark. 'We should not be complacent', SBY said. 'The worst step we can take is to take this partnership for granted.' It almost sounded as if he was reprimanding the Prime Minister.

The heart of SBY's speech was a warning about the dangers posed by the perceptions that Indonesians and Australians have of one another. He could not have been more blunt:

I was taken aback when I learned that in a recent Lowy Institute survey 54 per cent of Australian respondents doubted that Indonesia would act responsibly in its international relations...there are Australians who still see Indonesia as an authoritarian country, as a military dictatorship, as a hotbed of Islamic extremism or even as an expansionist power.

He acknowledged that Indonesians had distorted views of Australia too:

...in Indonesia there are people who remain afflicted with Australiaphobia—those who believe that the notion of White Australia still persists, that Australia harbours ill intention toward Indonesia and is either sympathetic to or supports separatist elements in our country.

But tellingly, the way his speech developed suggested he was not sure Indonesian suspicions of Australia's attitudes towards separatism were entirely unfounded. Why else would he have thought it necessary to say this?: [fold]

Indonesians are proud people who cherish our national unity and territorial integrity above all else. Our nationalism is all about forging harmony and unity among our many ethnic and religious groups. That is why the success of peace and reconciliation in Aceh and Papua is not trivial but a matter of national survival for us Indonesians. We would like Australians to understand and appreciate that.

And why else would he think it necessary to remind his audience about the undertakings Australia made in the Lombok Treaty? 

...both sides commit themselves to respecting each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. That means each side will in no way support any separatist movement against the other.

Separatism is hardly a problem in Australia, so it must be our support for separatism in Indonesia he is talking about. And he clearly believes this promise is important – he called the treaty 'a paradigm shift' in the relationship. By signing onto this agreement we were changing course and reinvented Indonesian-Australian relations for the better. 

It sounds as if SBY does not think Indonesian fears of Australian support for separatism are merely the misperceptions of the ignorant masses. And just to be sure, he reminded us why Indonesians suspect Australia of fostering separatism: 

There were periods when we were burdened by mistrust and suspicions at both ends. There were times when it felt like we were just reacting to events and were in a state of drift. There were moments when we felt as if our worlds were just too far apart.  During the East Timor crisis in the late 1990s our relations hit an all-time low.

This is remarkable stuff from the head of state of a close neighbour speaking as an honoured guest of our parliament. The grace and charm of much else he said makes it clear he is no Australiaphobe himself, which only makes these stern messages all the starker.

So how should Australia respond? First, we need to take SBY’s message seriously and accept that Indonesians do not trust us because they think we support separatism that threatens their immensely complex and diverse country. That is a pretty sobering realisation.

Second, we need to recognise that the Indonesians have high, and I would say unrealistic, expectations of the Lombok Treaty as a way to manage this issue. Tellingly, considering the way SBY spoke about the treaty, Rudd did not mention it at all. As I have said before, Indonesia believes the treaty commits Australia to preventing the support of separatism from our soil, not just by the Government but by private citizens. That is totally unrealistic, but Canberra has apparently done nothing to correct this impression. That needs to be fixed. 

Third, and most important, Australians need to understand more about Indonesia – what it is, what it has become, where it is going, how it sees us, and what it means to us. There has been some excellent debate about this, sparked by Fergus' excellent paper last week, and taken up in different ways on The Interpreter by Stephen Grenville and Greg Earl

My take on the debate between Stephen and Greg is that helping Australians understand Indonesia is not ultimately the media's job, but the Government's, and in particular that of our political leaders. They are the ones who need to step in and explain how Australia's international environment is changing and what we should do about it, and they need to do that even when the messages conflict with comfortable assumptions and easy prejudices. That is why last week I called our ignorance of Indonesia a failure of political leadership.

COMMENTS

17 Mar 2010 10:27

Geraldine Doogue is host of ABC Radio National's Saturday Extra program.

In the debate over how to boost comprehensive coverage of modern Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, I favour a new journalistic emphasis: seeking out shared dilemmas.

Instead of the tried-and-true policy of highlighting key differences, why not encourage more curiosity around common middle-class vexations? There's plenty to work with and fresh angles are going begging.

Of course we would need to lose our sentimental attachment to the 'exotic East' stereotype, hardly something to grieve over. Anyway, it could linger in the background to be legitimately mined, given the significant differences in the scale of challenge facing the two different communities. 

But concentrating on similar problems, especially among urban dwellers, would surely lead to a much truer representation of contemporary lives. This could assist a better national conversation that would ultimately buttress sensible inter-country dialogue.

In a wide range of areas — the rising incidence of type 2 diabetes, decreasing physical exercise, dramatically rising rates of obesity, poor work-life balance, quality of parliamentarians — citizens in Australia and the region can easily swap notes. The modern middle-class predicament of encouraging optimal development of children amid an ICT revolution and of a broad search for meaning amid brittle traditions is very much a shared dilemma, as any cursory conversation will reveal. [fold]

At the moment, very few foreign editors will seek angles like this from their correspondents. So the hard-pressed correspondents barely spend any time developing them. But they know they are there, just waiting to be drawn out.

During a recent visit to Malaysia, my colleagues and I on the board of the Australia-Malaysia Institute were introduced to the considerable problems facing sporting authorities there, starved of competent on-air sporting commentators and coaches. In the area of volunteering, they're struggling, with super-busy parents simply not seeing this as part of a parental repertoire and precious few underlying institutions like Little Athletics or Oz Kick. They're very keen to know how we've developed these services.

The common complaint of 'no time for anything but basic family and work' is deafening in the region, once you get beyond surface chit-chat. In fact, it's more keenly felt than in Australia, much to our surprise. This is surely food for good stories.

A key issue I always raise with people in the region is: 'tell us about social change in your community'. The stories come tumbling out, with passion and usually some fear. We may think we have issues with Australian identity confusion amid fast change. They're nothing by comparison with what's confronting our neighbours. But we don't report it like this, whereas it could be so much more inviting if we did.

So while I sympathise with the frustrations of some of The Interpreter's respondents about Australia's outdated notions of modern Indonesia or Malaysia or Thailand, merely calling for broader coverage won't do the trick. No amount of fine, nuanced reporting by Greg Earl from the AFR or Rowan Callick in The Australian will seriously shift the consciousness of the mainstream in either country until we start seeking what's common as well as what's different.

Then, and I suspect only then, will we reach what I judge to be a bold goal: a series from Andrew Denton on Asian characters (a la The Elders series) or Q&A from Jakarta. Then we would be cooking with gas.

Photo by Flickr user permanently scatterbrained, used under a Creative Commons license.

COMMENTS