The paper that makes its point the Javanese way

 jakartaThe Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia’s largest English language newspapers, is known for its fearless reporting on the country’s powerhouse politicians, tycoons and military leaders. But the steely determination of its editors to deliver its hard-hitting and influential news agenda is masked by an unusually polite and civil approach in the newsroom, as Alexander Hamer found when he visited.  unique newsroom.

By ALEXANDER HAMER

THE newsroom is quiet. It could be an accounting firm. There are no loud, confrontational phone calls, no swearing in frustration at uncooperative sources. Editors ask for things nicely and tread around in thongs. This newsroom is uniquely Javanese. 

Managing editor Kornelius Purba is clear about that. It is the way of things at The Jakarta Post.

But as one of Indonesia’s largest and most influential English language newspapers, the Post routinely breaks huge stories about the Indonesian government, the tycoons who run the country and corruption in the police and military.

The paper was established in the 1980s by a conglomerate of other media, including several different publishers of Indonesian language newspapers – a rarity anywhere, and especially in a country where most of the media is in the hands of a small but powerful group of owners.

“Just by watching the news you can immediately tell who owns the channel,” says Harvard-educated editor-in-chief Meidyatama Suryodiningrat.

Affectionately known as ‘Dimas’ in the newsroom, he says he regularly receives angry calls from those featured in his pages. “It’s my job to field those calls and then ignore them.”

He is not intimidated by the government or the tycoons,  but adds that radical groups have found issue with the newspaper’s coverage of their often-violent activities.

“They’ve occupied the newsroom twice now. Not violently, but they stopped us from getting the newspaper out. That worries me more than an angry call from someone in power.”

The Jakarta Post has a small but elite readership, not unlike The Australian. In a country of 240 million people, it has a circulation of around 50,000 people. But its influence reaches much further than that.

Following articles published in February about discrepancies in the first family’s tax returns (an unexplained US$500,000 in the President’s bank account in 2011) and the chronic absence of President Yudhoyono’s MP son Edhie from parliament, among other things, SBY (as the president is known in Indonesia) complained about the ‘unfair’ treatment of his family in the press. The same day, editor-in-chief Meidyatama took part in a panel discussion on television. He was attacked by the others on the show for this ‘aggressive’ coverage of SBY. The paper stood its ground.

The Post’s strong reporting will be hugely important in the coming year. There are presidential elections in 2014, and even now there is much talk about possible candidates.

The front runners for the presidency are well-known in Indonesian politics. In a recent poll,  three candidates sit on around 20 per cent of the vote each. One is a tycoon, another a maligned former president and daughter of Indonesia’s post-independence leader Soeharto, and the last was rumoured to have plotted to succeed Sukarno as an unelected leader of Indonesia.

The prospect of the last, Prabowo Subianto, taking office is alarming to some. Before rising to political prominence, he was discharged from the army in 1998 following allegations, on which he was cleared by a military court, of human rights abuses and the incitement of gang-rapes and lynching of Chinese-Indonesians and ordering the kidnapping of human rights activists.

In 2000 he was refused entry to the United States under the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, one of the other front-runners ahead of next year’s poll, chose Prabowo as her vice presidential candidate in her unsuccessful 2009 bid to return to office. 

While the Post does not usually pick sides in elections like the British newspapers do, it is clear Prabowo is not popular in the newsroom. Many articles have argued that he is not a suitable candidate for the presidency, citing the alleged human rights abuses and the recent possibility that his nomination may be blocked by the judiciary.

The Post’s awareness of its audience is clear in its stance. Instead of aiming comment at the people who could elect Prabowo, the editorial policy is to influence the party members responsible for putting him in the race.

 Alexander Hamer completed a Monash Journalism work placement at The Jakarta Post.

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