May 23, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Press representation of the ‘Bali Nine’ in Indonesia and Australia

A survey reveals that reporting of the Australians on death row did not foster better understanding of each country’s point of view

Helen Pausacker

Given the very different views about the death penalty in Australia and Indonesia, it was perhaps inevitable that the bilateral relationship would come under strain as the executions of convicted drug smugglers, Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, became imminent in early 2015. Press reporting in both Australia and Indonesia in the decade since their arrests, trials, long imprisonment on death row, until their executions, did little to bridge this gap in understanding of each country’s point of view.

The arrests of nine young Australians (known as the ‘Bali Nine’) on drugs trafficking charges in Bali in October 2004, including Chan and Sukumaran, were preceded by the extraordinary interest in the trial and conviction of fellow Australian, Schapelle Corby, also for drug trafficking in 2005. In the early stages of the Bali Nine cases, media attention in both countries was decidedly less intense than the Corby case.

Reporting on court cases and sentences

Australian and Indonesian journalists covering the court cases and sentences for Chan and Sukumaran, demonstrated different reporting styles. Australian journalists tended to write longer articles and were more likely to talk in the first person, even when not necessarily writing opinion pieces. For example, Melanie Morrison’s one thousand word article, ‘Mercy for the condemned?’ published in the Jakarta Post on 22 July 2011, begins with a conversation between Morrison and her young daughter after hearing about Andrew Chan’s death sentence. Morrison summarises Chan’s family background, his personality, activities in prison, his religious awakening and the effect of the death penalty his family. Morrison quotes from former prisoners and Chan’s family.

By comparison, Indonesian journalists wrote shorter pieces and rarely revealed their own opinions or raised questions about why young people would become drug couriers, or whether the death penalty is a suitable deterrent. During the New Order, the press was tightly controlled and the safe option was to quote officials in reports. Although it is more than 15 years since Suharto stepped down, quotes from authorities remain important in news reporting. The article by Jakarta Post reporter Desy Nurhayati, ‘Bali Nine ringleaders express remorse, beg for pardon’ on 21 September 2010 is typical of this style. The article is neutral, short and factually correct, although it does provide quotes from the court case, including Chan and Sukumaran’s official statements. Nurhayati does not reveal her position on the death penalty. Nevertheless, while rarely expressing their own opinions about sanctions, Indonesian journalists did quote critics of the death penalty. In another article in June 2011, Nurhayati quoted the views of Todung Mulya Lubis, the lawyer for Chan and Sukumaran. Given both pieces were published in the Jakarta Post, the difference in reporting is clearly not due to editorial policy.

Whilst Australian journalists and academics were invited to write opinion pieces for the English-language Indonesian press, including Jakarta Post, this was rarely reciprocated. Australian online journal, The Conversation (article one, article two), which published a series of differing Indonesian opinions on the death penalty, is a notable exception.

The Bali Nine in the Indonesian prison system

After the Bali Nine were convicted early reporting about Indonesian prisons in the Australian press described them as ‘dangerous’, ‘dirty’, having ‘bleak walls’ and ‘crawling with vermin’. Bali’s Kerobokan prison was frequently referred to as a ‘hellhole’.

Partly in response to this, a few years after the imprisonment of the Bali Nine, prison governors at Kerobokan opened the prison’s doors to local and foreign journalists alike, permitting them to interview not just the prison heads, but also the guards and prisoners. The openness of prisons to the media (far greater than in Australia) led to a marked change in reporting about Indonesian prisons in the Australian press.

While Indonesian prisons were still (accurately) represented as over-crowded and poorly resourced, Australian journalists also began to tell stories of guards who showed warmth to prisoners and some prison authorities who are open to innovation (such as the art room and computer facilities at Kerobokan).

In Indonesia, well-behaved prisoners commonly have their sentence reduced on Indonesian Independence Day and the main holiday celebrated by the prisoner’s religion. The prison governor holds a press conference which creates a photo opportunity. As a result, press reports of these events in Indonesia and Australia have a certain similarity, as can be seen in a Jakarta Post article with accompanying photo of Renae Lawrence at a Christmas celebration in 2008. Likewise, similarities can been seen in effusive reports in both the Indonesian and Australian press about the wedding of Bali Nine member Martin Stephens to Christine Puspayanti in Kerobokan Prison in December 2011.

Interestingly, in the Indonesian press coverage of the Bali Nine, religion was one of the few issues where reports revealed more about the thoughts of the prisoners. An article in Kompas in 2010, for example, focused on the ‘born-again’ experiences of Bali Nine members, Chan, Sukumaran and Scott Rush.

One of the few times when newspapers differed in their reporting of the prison life of Bali Nine members were in accounts of the circumcision of Rush and his supposed conversion to Islam. Republika, a publication aligned to the Islamic community, was fulsome in its description of the event. Other newspapers, particularly in Australia, were more circumspect about the stories of conversion, which were indeed denied by Rush himself.

The executions of Chan and Sukumaran

Both the Indonesian and Australian press covered the countdown to Chan’s and Sukumaran’s executions extensively: the preparations; the changing dates; and the transfer of prisoners to the island prison, Nusakambangan. The Australian press focused more on Chan’s and Sukumaran’s family, no doubt in part because it had greater access to them.

In the transfer of Chan and Sukumaran to the place of their execution, Nusakambangan prison, Indonesian authorities seemed to be playing both to local attitudes and the growing overseas media, with a ‘theatrical’ show of force – armoured tanks and masked, armed guards escorted the handcuffed prisoners. There was extensive coverage of this in Australia, but it featured less prominently in Indonesia.

The bilateral relationship

As the date of the executions approached, media in both countries focused on the responses of the heads of state. The Australian press concentrated on President Joko Widodo’s failure to grant clemency to the men despite Australia’s pleas. The Indonesian press focused on Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s ill-considered remarks in February 2015, connecting Australia’s aid contribution to the relief effort after the 2004 Aceh tsunami, with its petition for a reprieve for Chan and Sukumaran. In Indonesia this rapidly escalated into the social media campaign, ‘coins for Abbott’, with calls to symbolically repay Australia’s aid, widely covered in both the Indonesian and Australian press.

Both the Indonesian and Australian press reported and analysed the executions in the context of the bilateral relationship, with the Australian press considering the effect would be negative, while Indonesian officials were quoted as saying the impact would only be short-term. In the end Australia’s ambassador was recalled for just five weeks.

In the lead-up to the executions, the Indonesian press highlighted examples of both negative and positive views of Indonesia expressed by Australian individuals. Kompas published an article about an anonymous threat sent to the Indonesian Consulate in Sydney, which received minimal coverage in Australia. Republika devoted an article to a Melbourne woman who stated she was praying for the execution of Chan and Sukumaran because her daughter had died of a drug overdose.

In contrast, there was a tendency in the Australia press to under-report on discussions about the death penalty within the Indonesian press or anti-death penalty demonstrations by Indonesians in Jakarta or at Cilacap, the harbour town opposite Nusakambangan. Further reporting on these groups could have created a more nuanced picture of the position of Indonesians on this issue, rather than portraying them as having one view.

Contradictory responses on both sides

Opinion polls in Indonesia show a large majority in favour of the death penalty – with narcotics offences being high on the list of those deemed deserving of the death penalty. Australia was widely seen as ‘interfering’ in Indonesian domestic affairs by advocating against the death penalty for the Bali Nine duo.

Meanwhile, in a clear contradiction pointed out by a few commentators at the time, there is also widespread public sympathy for Indonesians overseas who are likewise facing the death penalty, including for drugs convictions. Early in 2015, while preparations were in place for executions to take place in Indonesia, President Joko Widodo allocated resources to advocate for Indonesians on death row overseas. The Indonesian press reported that from January to June 2015 the government assisted 34 Indonesians on death row.

At the time of the media storm around the executions, there was little emphasis in either the Indonesian or Australian press on the disparity between Indonesia’s executions of foreign versus Indonesian prisoners. Diane Zhang’s piece in both the ABC’s ‘Drum’ and Hukum Online in Indonesia, were notable exceptions.

At the same time, Australia’s position on the death penalty sentences for the Bali bombers, Mukhlas, Imam Samudra and Amrozi, brought down in 2007, also revealed contradictions. Despite Australia being a strong abolitionist country, at the time Prime Minister John Howard declared that it would be a ‘major injustice if the Bali bombers were not executed’, and there was minimal press commentary on the contradiction of this position.

How to bridge the gap?

Both the Australian and Indonesian press shifted in their reporting of the Bali Nine cases over the years. In early 2015, with their executions pending the cases of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran became more prominent, and both the Indonesian and Australian press focused heavily and, generally, negatively, on the bilateral relationship.

Perhaps the only change in focus that might have assisted the situation was for both countries to concentrate more on the views of the peoples of each country, rather than the leaders. That is, for Australians to report more on Indonesians who were fighting to abolish the death penalty and for Indonesians to write in greater depth, to explain Australian views on and the history of the death penalty.

Helen Pausacker ( is Deputy Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 122: Oct-Dec 2015

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