Boats, beef and Bali

Photo by Thomas Depenbusch. Used under CC.
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Breeanna Tirant reports on perceptions of Indonesia and the way in which it is portrayed in Australian media as part of an innovative project to foster understanding between journalism students at Swinburne and Indonesia's Universitas Multimedia Nusantara. Each worked on stories answering questions set by the other about their respective countries.  

When Age Journalist, Michael Bachelard first began reporting as an Indonesian correspondent he says he knew virtually nothing about the country.

“I had to file for Fairfax as an expert on a country that I knew very little about from day one,” Bachelard says.

After three years as The Age’s investigations editor, he has has gained insight into the way the Indonesian media coverage works in Australia and why.

“It’s what’s known as the three b’s, boats, beef and Bali. Which is described as the only things Australia is interested in, within regards to Indonesia. It’s one of the world’s fastest growing economies and yet we show remarkably little interest in it as a society.”

So if you’re now questioning your knowledge beyond the 3 b’s of Indonesia, know you’re not alone.

Only 19 per cent of the Australian population believe they have good understanding of Indonesia. Whereas, 43 per cent of Indonesians believe they have a good understanding about Australia, according to the Australian and Indonesian perceptions.

So is there a fault in Indonesian reporting in Australia? Or are Aussies just not interested in knowing?

With all his experience, Bachelard says, that as a journalist sometimes you’re restricted to your audience.

“They (the tabloid media) basically cover Indonesia only when it involves Australians or when something happens that has some form of relevance to Australia. We don’t generally learn from the mass media what goes on in Indonesia.

“At Fairfax and The Australian we try to go beyond that, but ultimately, we are still constrained. I was constrained in what my readers were more interested in,” he says.

Bachelard, says, that writing purely positive stories is not realistic. “Journalism is mostly negative, you are mostly searching out the conflict and areas of strife, it’s unrealistic to expect that journalism will be able to write purely positive accounts of a place.

“There’s certainly been occasions where we have shown a lot more interest and it’s been negative interest of Indonesia, specifically around the Bali bombings. On the other hand, terrorism and radicalism in Indonesia is a real problem and a lot of Indonesians recognise it as well.”

Moving from Indonesia to Melbourne in 2012, Sasha Luhulima, assistant editor of Melbourne-based free Indonesian magazine, Buset, recognises Indonesia’s problems but feels that Australian media portrays her home country in a positive light.

Sasha Luhulima, assistant editor of the magazine, Buset. Photo Breeanna Tirant

“I rarely encounter anything about Indonesia that’s negative in Australian media, or so negative that it’s not true. Mainly it is true. You won’t feel offended if it’s the truth,” she says.

Ross Tapsell, lecturer in Asian studies at The Australian National University, says, “If Indonesia is only ever depicted as being an Islamic fundamentalist of Sharia law, or a place of rampant corruption and murderers and that’s the only themes that come out of it, then of course Australian’s are going to think negatively about Indonesia.”

When 19 per cent of Australian don’t know much about Indonesia, but 44 per cent don’t find it a trustworthy country, there’s something missing, according to The Australia–Indonesian Centre.

Tapsell says that religion, specifically Islam is often mentioned when Australia reports Indonesia. “A lot of reports do not cover the diverse and large discussions which occur within Islam in Indonesia, they’re often very quick to say there’s fundamental Islam and good Islam, it really is a kaleidoscope of views, there are plenty of Indonesians who are not Islamic.”

In 2010, 88 per cent of the Indonesian population identified themselves as Islamic according to Pew Research Centre.

Bachelard says, “As a journalist you have to tread a line, you can’t be too hard –hearted otherwise you can’t convey the humanity in your story, but if you feel too much empathy it can suck you down into this spiral. You can’t be immune to it.”

The executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran after the Bali nine shook Bachelard. “I got to know Myuran quite well, we corresponded quite a bit in the prison and I liked him. I thought he was doing quite a good job, completely rehabilitated. Then to have that ignored and him executed, I found that quite difficult. I was very angry at Indonesia for that.”

In February 2015, 62 per cent of Australians said that the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran should not proceed. In an almost identical result both before and after the executions, 69 per cent said in February that the death penalty should not be used as a penalty for drug trafficking (71 per cent in May).

“I remember reading asking to spare their lives, but they’re reporting from Australia’s side. Every country has different punishments and consequences,” says Luhulima.

According to Tapsell, Australians are only interested in what happens to Australian’s in Indonesia.

“In Indonesia the death penalty is executing more than just those 2 Australian’s. The accusation that the Australian media let by pass is that they don’t actually care about the death penalty, all they’re worried about is the two Australian’s, so don’t pretend like you are anti-death penalty,” Tapsell says.

Eighty five per cent of the Australian population believe that Indonesia should abolish the death penalty, according to The Lowly Institute survey taken in 2015.

Luhulima admits that there was a time when the Bali nine was being reported heavily and she did not feel safe in Australia because she identifies as Indonesian. “My mum was trying not to let me go out for a couple of days while it was happening, I was like scared. Maybe Australians are scared to go to Indonesia,” she says.

Tapsell says, “A lot of Australians do see Indonesia as a threat, in part because of the legacy of being a militarised regime since 1998.”

Although, he believes there is a solution.  “We can’t always expect the media to be the solution. In particular, one of the problems is education. What we learn in schools about our knowledge of Indonesia could be improved.

“When I was in high school, that was the first time I heard about Indonesia, it was of course when Indonesia was involved in violent conflict in East Timor, in 1999. My first thoughts about Indonesia were that they were murderers, in that East Timor situation.

“What I didn’t realise was that Indonesia is a diverse, vibrant, colourful place on our doorstep… that has problems. Problems that we shouldn’t run from, we should be able to report on the diversity of Indonesia and not just making it a single story about the country.”

“To portray it as a problem is not to create a false impression, to say that’s the only thing we know about that country is,” says Bachelard.

Indonesia is more than just boats, beef and Bali after all.

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