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Australia Viewed Through the Indonesian Press

07 Jul 2015
Marlene Millott
A Man reads an Indonesian Newspaper on the street. Photo Credit: Flickr (Just Call Me Mo) Creative Commons.

Indonesia has featured frequently in the Australian media in recent months, however recent conversations with leading publications in Jakarta reveal that representations of Australia in the Indonesian media are also limited. Marlene Millott investigates why.

Indonesia has featured frequently in the Australian media in recent months, with the executions of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. As the Australian people and media campaigned for mercy for the Bali 9 duo, Indonesia was portrayed as the “bad guy” in what has become a pattern of negative reporting on the country, driven by a misunderstanding and lack of interest in the wider issues it faces. Indonesian experts have long been aware of the tendency to focus on stories about ‘boats, beef and Bali’ which ignore the politically, culturally and linguistically diverse aspects of Indonesia. This limited view presented by the Australian media contributes to the misunderstanding many Australians have of Indonesia.

However, this is not a one sided problem. Recent interviews conducted with editors of leading publications in Jakarta reveal that representations of Australia in the Indonesian media are also limited. I spoke to the former editor of the Jakarta Post, Endy Bayuni, the publisher of Tempo English magazine Yuli Ismartono, and the editor of Asia Calling, Rebecca Henschke, to seek a stronger understanding of Australia’s representation in the Indonesian media.

As in Australia, the death penalty was a common theme in the Indonesian media at the time of the executions. The majority of Indonesians support the law that proscribes the death penalty to combat what is widely believed to be a serious drug problem in the country. “That’s the law and the President has the prerogative to carry it out,” said Ms Ismartono. Australia’s focus on the case of Sukumaran and Chan was noticed by the Indonesian media, which also highlighted the apparent lack of interest in the execution of Australians in other countries. “They hang people in Singapore, they hang people in Malaysia for drug offences, so Indonesia would like to ask the Australians – what’s so different about us?” wondered Ms Ismartono. At times the Indonesian media highlighted cases of Australians who supported the death penalty for Chan and Sukamaran, while ignoring the protests of anti-death penalty groups in Indonesia itself.

The issue of asylum seekers features frequently in the Indonesian media, with the view that Indonesia is treated unfairly by Australia. Indonesia sees itself as a transit point for boat people and views the Australian Navy’s actions of pushing boats back as violations of Indonesian sovereignty. Mr Bayuni said that the Indonesian media reports on the topic “not because it’s an issue in Indonesia, but because of people in Australia”. According to Mr Bayuni, “[Indonesians] need to hear about how Australia sees the issue and how Australia treats Indonesia like the bad guy,” citing the belief that Australian politicians pass the blame to Indonesia for what is an international issue.

Other big stories that are followed by the Indonesian media that relate to Australia tend to be negative, such as the spying scandal in 2013, Schapelle Corby’s case, and issues relating to West Papua. In addition to these big stories, domestic Australian stories occasionally make the Indonesian news, such as leadership changes. “They did get very excited about Julia Gillard, when there was the first female PM,” Ms Henschke said. “The fact that she was an atheist as well. The Indonesian media picked that up and ran with it, because that was very unusual for them.” Stories about the Australian economy sometimes feature if they relate to the Indonesian economy. But beyond major stories related to crises in the relationship, or occasional reporting on Australian domestic matters, news stories about Australia rarely make the Indonesian news.

The lack of reporting on topics related to Australia is due to several reasons. Often, Indonesian media outlets don’t have the resources to send correspondents to Australia because Indonesian wages are too low for the Australian cost of living. Ms Henschke also believes Australia doesn’t reach out to Indonesian journalists. She highlights the two occasions that Prime Minister Abbott refused to allow Indonesian journalists to attend his press conferences. “That pissed people off and they can’t cover the topics properly,” she said. Endy Bayuni pointed out the nationalistic tone often taken by Indonesian media outlets that indicates a prejudice against Australia. “We have this constant problem with the information about Australia and the media seems to be nationalist in reporting. I think it fuels that prejudice.” Mr Bayuni believes that some editors and journalists believe that these types of stories appeal more to readers, and therefore are likely to sell better. Finally there simply isn’t an interest in Australian stories. “I think the bottom line is that Indonesia has an enormous amount of neighbours and it tends to look up, not down,” said Ms Henschke. When reporting on foreign news stories, the Indonesian media tends to focus on its closer neighbours, like Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.

The narrow portrayal of each country by the other in their respective media contributes to the general misunderstanding each society has about the other. The 2015 Lowy Institute Poll on Australia and the World showed that Australian attitudes towards Indonesia ‘have fallen to their lowest point in eight years’. It highlighted only 34% of Australians know that Indonesia is a democracy, believing the country is still authoritarian, and see Indonesia as a security threat to Australia. Ms Henschke believes most Indonesians feel positively towards Australia, and a study by Lowy released in 2012 showed that Indonesians in general had warm feelings towards Australia. But there are some who are suspicious of Australia’s perceived interference in issues of sovereignty surrounding the independence of East Timor, and the ongoing struggle in West Papua. On top of this, many Indonesians remain unaware of some of the basic components of Australian society and culture, such as multiculturalism and the variety of religions practiced in Australia. “Unfortunately I think the media in Indonesia has portrayed Australia as a white only nation that has a very small Asian minority… Indonesians would still think that Australians are white Anglo Saxon and Christian mostly,” said Mr Bayuni. “On issues like Islam they have the perception that there is Islamophobia in Australia.”

Programs like the Elizabeth O’Neill Journalism Scholarship provide the opportunity for one Australian journalist to visit Indonesia and one Indonesian journalist to visit Australia each year. The program aims to build a stronger understanding of the wide range of issues faced by both countries. The Australia-Indonesia Editors Forum provides a similar chance for editors from both countries to meet and discuss the ways each country reports on the other.

What is really needed is stronger engagement in from both sides to present news on a range of issues, and avoid falling into the easy and overused but popular stereotypes which sell papers, but damage the long-term relationship.

Marlene Millott received a Euan Crone Asian Awareness Scholarship for 2014 and is a recent graduate from Monash University with a Masters in Journalism and International Relations. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.