In the Jayawijaya mountains of West Papua live some of the most isolated communities in the world. Lack of access to information resulted in the death of 55 people from hunger in the district of Yahukimo in December 2005. Two years later, a radio station has been built there to help bring an end to this isolation.
The sub-district of Anyelma is like many across Papua’s Central Highlands. Largely cut off from development, poverty is rampant, basic services such as water, electricity and telecommunications are unavailable, literacy is low, health services almost non-existent, and subsistence farming is the norm.
As part of its efforts to extend access to information in remote locations such as this, Indonesia’s only independent national radio news agency, KBR, proposed to build a radio station there. This initiative is part of a six year program to set up radio stations as a means of disseminating information to some of the least developed parts of Eastern Indonesia.
The station in Anyelma, Radio Pikonane, was to prove the most challenging yet. As well as the obstacles presented by the isolated location – the only road into the area from the nearest town, Wamena, is periodically cut off by flooding - limited local human resources, and the lack of any nearby power source, the KBR team first had to overcome some deep suspicions among members of the local community that there might be a hidden motive behind their initiative. West Papua is, after all, one of Indonesia’s most naturally resource rich, yet paradoxically deeply impoverished, provinces, that has yet to benefit from any sustained and substantial development.
Initial meetings in August 2006 to reach agreement in principle on the benefits of establishing a radio station in this remote area were followed by many more hours of deliberation as local leaders and the KBR team discussed the practicalities of its establishment. In order to ensure genuine commitment on the part of the local community, KBR required that they contribute some time and resources towards its establishment. For its part, KBR agreed to cover the cost of building the radio station and training local staff to run it.
But even with agreement reached on these aspects, there remained one huge obstacle that KBR had never before encountered. Lack of electricity has been a challenge in one or two other locations where KBR has built stations, but in Yahukimo the prohibitively high cost of fuel – five times higher than in Jakarta - meant that a generator could not be relied upon to power the station if it was to have any chance of long-term sustainability.
After some investigation, hydropower was determined to be the most practical alternative, and a 9000 watt micro-hydro plant was commissioned and built on the nearby Kut river. This was a major undertaking, and broke entirely new ground for KBR, but the results are striking. For the first time, Anyelma has electricity and, in addition to the radio station, the local school, church, village hall and several homes are all now also being hooked up to the supply.
Interestingly, despite Anyelma’s isolation, its inhabitants were very clear about what they wanted to hear on their radio station. ‘We want to know what is happening elsewhere in Indonesia, even in the region, and we also want people to know what is going on here,’ a village elder confirmed.
As the only source of entertainment in the area, Radio Pikonane’s music programs are proving popular too
Despite the steep learning curve for the Radio Pikonane staff, none of whom had any previous radio experience, the impact of the in-house training provided by KBR is already evident. By early 2008, the station was already producing a weekly farming program, a regular health program, and another program in which village and sub-district leaders respond to questions and complaints from listeners.
But while elsewhere in Indonesia people can simply pick up the phone or send a text message in order to have their say, lack of phone access means that this is not an option for Radio Pikonane listeners. This does nothing to deter them. Following a news report the station broadcast in early 2008 about the closure of the Anyelma village school, women from two other villages walked several kilometres to inform Radio Pikonane staff of the same problem and requested the station to report on this too.
As the only source of entertainment in the area, Radio Pikonane’s music programs are proving popular too. A satellite dish and receiver also allows the station to access KBR-produced programs and to select for live broadcast those of most relevance and interest to their listeners, whether national news bulletins, or talk shows on issues ranging from human rights to the environment, and from education to health.
By broadcasting on an AM frequency, the aim is to maximise the station’s reach to the scattered populations that inhabit the surrounding hills, and an estimated 70,000 people are believed to be within range of its transmitter. Nevertheless, ownership of radios is limited, so group listening is encouraged and 1500 radios are being distributed, mostly to women, to facilitate broader listening.
The official launch of the station in September 2007 proved to be a major event that underlines its significance for the inhabitants of the area, with some 5000 men, women and children walking for hours or even days to witness Radio Pikonane go on air. As one local leader commented, ‘We have received promise after promise from the government to provide development here. This is the first time anyone has delivered on their promise.’
Hopes are high for a positive impact now that the area has both a radio station and electricity and their isolation has ended. ‘We have new opportunities to help ourselves,’ commented Kores Weitipo, a teacher who donated the land on which the station is built. ‘We plan to have farming programs on the radio to help improve our crops. And with electricity those crops can earn more income because we can sell not just the raw product. Now we can also grind our coffee beans or blend carrot juice for sale.’
Military officers present at the launch were guarded in their response to the station
Although the positive response from the government to date – exemplified by the attendance of a government minister, the deputy provincial governor and representatives from the national and local parliament at the station’s official launch – is welcome, it is unlikely to be all smooth sailing. Military officers also present at the launch were guarded in their response to the station and, in a part of the country where human rights violations are rife and have been taking place until now largely unreported and unchecked, a radio station seeking to broadcast the truth is bound to encounter problems.
This fact is not lost on those working at Radio Pikonane, who are very conscious of the close eye that the military is likely to keep on the station and the risks involved. KBR, too, is aware of the potential danger. Although it cannot guarantee its security, KBR Director Santoso believes that the radio news agency does offer a level of protection and support for the station. ‘We had an experience with a station we built in Tual, South East Maluku, after it exposed local government corruption. Ironically, the regent who had fully supported the station’s launch, was later the one trying to close it down. But we broadcast reports about this and listeners all over the country protested against the regent’s actions. Today the station is still on air.’
For now, Radio Pikonane is focusing on overcoming some technical problems and on steadily increasing the quality and quantity of its output. KBR will also continue to offer mentoring to station staff over the next 18 months, not only to raise journalism standards, but also by providing technical and management training.
Key to the survival of Radio Pikonane is long-term financial self-reliance. For now, the station receives a subsidy to cover operational costs, but this will be phased out over time. In its place will be station-generated income.
In a remote location such as this one a common source of income for radio stations elsewhere – commercial advertising - is not a viable option. However, there are alternative solutions. For example, radio is one of the only means for family members living apart to convey messages to one another about marriages, births, deaths and the like. By setting modest fees for broadcasting these announcements the station can secure vital income. Similarly, the station’s enormous potential for local government and national and international NGOs to disseminate critical public education messages that may otherwise not reach these communities can also serve as an important revenue stream. Thus, while providing listeners with access to the information they need, the station can simultaneously secure necessary income to ensure its sustainability.
KBR and the Indonesian non-profit media development organisation, PPMN, plan to use Radio Pikonane as a model for the establishment of two more radio stations in Papua in 2008. If successful, these stations have the potential for replication in other parts of the country where lack of information access is similarly hampering development. ii
Tessa Piper (email@example.com ) is the Indonesia Country Program Director for the Media Development Loan Fund (www.mdlf.org ) that is supporting the radio building program in conjunction with the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Jakarta. For further information about KBR and PPMN contact firstname.lastname@example.org , telephone +62218573388, sms +622198279935, or fax +62218515891.
For information about human rights in this area, see Out of Sight: Endemic Abuse and Impunity in Papua's Central Highlands, Human Rights Watch, June 2007 (http://hrw.org/reports/2007/papua0707/papua0707web.pdf ).