Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Personality cults

Personality cults

Foreign news coverage needs to focus on Indonesia’s people, not just its leaders


Ross Tapsell

   Philip Koch with Sukarno
   Australian Broadcasting Commission

In 1969, a young journalist called David Jenkins received his first overseas posting to Indonesia. Under pressure to perform, Jenkins decided that the best way to impress the foreign news desk in Australia was to get as close to the seat of power as possible. He knew President Suharto would not meet with foreign correspondents, so he decided to try to personally interview five prominent Indonesian government officials.

This was no easy task. Jenkins made numerous approaches, attended diplomatic events, fought off bureaucratic aides, charmed secretaries and made himself known at press conferences. Remarkably, he managed to achieve his goal in just a few weeks. The editors ran the interviews, but expressed some disappointment. They wanted Suharto.

Jenkins’ story is not unusual. Newspaper editors look for evidence that their foreign correspondents have tracked down the most highly positioned sources for their stories. As a result, foreign correspondents believe that it is necessary to be close to the seat of power in order to understand the workings of the country, and decisions affecting its people. So for decades journalists posted in Indonesia have been trying to get access to the president – or, failing that, to get as close as they can.

Reporting the killings of 1965-66

This journalistic desire to be part of the ‘inner sanctum’ of the presidential palace began with the appeal exerted by the charismatic and brilliant orator Sukarno. Australian journalists in Jakarta during his presidency boasted of personal discussions with him, and were proud he knew their names and would sometimes refer to them in his speeches at political rallies.

Foreign correspondents think they need to be close to the seat of power

Philip Koch was the ABC’s Jakarta correspondent from 1964-67. Now retired in Queensland, he recalls his time as a reporter in Jakarta. ‘Anything that ever happened of interest as a Western correspondent revolved around the palace, and revolved around your access to Sukarno,’ he said. ‘It was access you began to rely on, as you could see him almost daily.’

It is easy to see how the story of Indonesia became the story of Sukarno, whose photogenic looks, immaculate military-style attire and ability to converse in a number of languages added to Western media interest. In Australia, cartoon images and photographs of Sukarno proliferated, along with stories about his sexual exploits and extravagant lifestyle. While foreign correspondents enjoyed Sukarno’s personal warmth, reports in the mainstream Australian press emphasised his ties with Beijing, his anti-Western speeches and the threat he posed to Australia.

But foreign correspondents’ obsession with Indonesia’s first president had disastrous consequences for Australian reporting of the killings of 1965-66, when an estimated 500,000 communist party members and supporters were massacred by the army, Muslim youth gangs and right-wing militias in the villages of Java, Bali and Sumatra.

During the tumult, editors and correspondents focused on the change of presidency at the expense of events outside the capital. As official sources in Jakarta either remained tight-lipped or were unaware of the massacres that were taking place in the countryside, little was reported by the foreign press.

As Koch explained, ‘There was a major problem – as the only ABC correspondent, if I left Jakarta, and went to Bali or Sumatra, I would have been leaving the day by day search for Sukarno, and who was really in control and what really had happened in the coup… the ABC wasn’t into that, so I didn’t get outside Jakarta until this Suharto-Sukarno act began to unfold.’

Mike Carlton, now a Sydney radio presenter, was Koch’s successor in Jakarta. He told me that most foreign correspondents missed the incredible slaughter of the communists. ‘I don't think any journalist in Jakarta had the idea that literally hundreds of thousands of people were being slaughtered and tossed into rivers. I don't think diplomats did either. It happened out of Jakarta, it was happening in the villages, and it simply just didn't get around to us that it was happening on that scale.’

Editors’ demands that correspondents remain in Jakarta and continue to focus on the leadership reflected the media’s obsession with Sukarno. But it also exemplified the broader logic of foreign news gathering – a logic that revolves around always seeking out the highest official source.

Reporting Suharto

During the New Order, the Australian correspondents continued to produce news from the palace, although not from the mouth of the president himself. Suharto had a particular distrust of the foreign press corps, and rarely granted personal interviews. He did little to play, stroke or massage the media, and had none of the charisma of Sukarno.

Suharto gave his first press conference to the foreign press seven years after he came into office. Access for correspondents to the palace was so difficult that it became known as the ‘Forbidden City’ amongst the foreign press corps. If in the past journalists had enjoyed unlimited access to Sukarno, under Suharto stories were sourced from a presidential spokesperson, not the president himself.

Despite these difficulties, Australian correspondents’ obsession with finding ways of being in closer contact with the president continued. One such example occurred in 1979, when a few Australian journalists arrived uninvited at one of Suharto’s Lebaran parties at his Jakarta home. Dressed in batik shirts, the journalists discreetly joined the reception line. Suharto, seeing they were dressed for the occasion, probably assumed they were invited, shook their hands and let them in.

The sources foreign correspondents use are crucial in shaping the public’s understanding of a country

Journalists’ focus on Suharto is one reason why the Australian media largely failed to cover the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s. The undercurrents of Islam were not part of the inner sanctum of the palace and Jakarta elite, where foreign correspondents spent their time. Focusing on Suharto’s recurrent themes of development and order, journalists ignored the suppression of Islamic movements. When Suharto was depicted as a villain, it was in the context of nepotism and corruption, reflecting the interests of those in the Jakarta elite who did not benefit financially from Suharto’s rule.

People, not leaders

Since the fall of Suharto, Australian journalists have continued to go to great lengths to find ways to access the highest source. Despite spin doctors’ attempts to limit press access to the president and increasing security, journalists still aspire to be part of the inner sanctum. In 2001 Australian journalists would make sure they began their day with President Abdurrahman Wahid on his morning walk around the palace gardens. The Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Evan Williams described this situation. ‘These were wonderful moments for a journalist. For us it was unprecedented access to a national leader – especially at a time of crisis – and access that was also highly personal, unvarnished.’

As Williams’ reflections suggest, ‘highly personal’ contact with Indonesian presidents and other power-brokers is still seen as something to which foreign correspondents should aspire. There is no shame in the fact that journalists take pride in obtaining comments from noteworthy or famous people and continue to strive for the sources that are most difficult to obtain.

It is important to remember, though, that the sources foreign correspondents use are crucial in shaping the public’s understanding of a country. And while considered authoritative, a focus on successive presidents and other ‘key figures’ has sometimes created a narrow, distorted picture of Indonesia.

Good journalists have always known that the news focus should be about Indonesia’s people and its social and political institutions, not just about its leaders, presidential or otherwise. For example, there is more to Islam in Indonesia than the rants of Abu Bakar Bashir, who receives constant attention from the mainstream Australian press. But as the Australian media’s obsession with the palace shows, the institutional processes through which news is created too often force foreign correspondents to focus on elite politics at the expense of stories that help Australians understand more about who Indonesians are and how they live.     ii

Ross Tapsell (rt543@uow.edu.au) is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong.

Inside Indonesia 92: Apr-Jun 2008


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