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How To Save Indonesia’s Independent Media Voices

Journalism has to stop sustained attacks on alternative media outlets.

Good journalism needs both mainstream media outlets and digital-only alternative media. (US Embassy, Jakarta/Flickr)

By Masduki, Universitas Islam Indonesia

YOGYAKARTA, May 5 – Konde.co, an alternative media site that actively reports on cases of sexual violence against women was hacked last October.

This incident followed the media’s coverage of a rape case involving officials from the Ministry of Cooperatives and SMEs in Jakarta. 

Konde.co experienced a denial-of-service attack aka DOS attack, which meant the public could not access the site. It was the second DOS attack on the non-profit news platform since it launched in 2016.

It wasn’t the only site targeted, two weeks earlier a digital political news site called Narasi was also hacked. Not only was there a DOS attack, but several personal accounts belonging to the Narasi journalists were hacked and monitored. 

Digital news channels such as Konde.co, Project Multatuli (a news platform for investigating social and political cases managed by journalists cum social activists in Jakarta) and Narasi exist as alternative media alongside mainstream media which are powerless to provide a critical and accurate news item.

They fill the ’empty space’ amid the spread of clickbait journalism, an oasis during the crisis of quality journalism in Indonesia following the country’s digital revolution. 

Scholars call it non-profit journalism, media without a profit motive which carries public interest issues.

The digital revolution can be seen as either a gift or a disaster. It brings more transparency, ensures equality of voices in public debate, allows almost anyone to own an outlet or become a journalist without economic and geographical constraints, and has less bureaucracy of news production.

It has, however, loosened stringent demands for high journalistic skills and opened up political-economic control over the social and political behaviour of its users, including journalists, being overseen by giant forces from both government and global corporations with vested interests. 

As a result, the digital space is not a truly safe room. It can trigger social conflict, political polarisation, even acts of terrorism. Professional journalists working for critical media are directly affected and often become the targets of digital surveillance.

The Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR) and Lembaga Bantuan Hukum (LBH) Press report for 2021 found that at least 125 journalists in Indonesia experienced digital violence, related to their reports on the Covid-19 pandemic or political news in general.

In the pre-digital media era, the perpetrators were easy to identify, usually security officials and radical groups. But now, perpetrators of violence against journalists tend to be anonymous.

Before 2010, journalist violence occurred in public areas ranging from confiscation of reporting tools, verbal threats up to murder. In the post-2010 era, the form has evolved into the hacking of social media accounts.

In the past decade, internet politicisation and the commodification of social media have fuelled violence from state officials or state-sponsored hackers/cyber troops against journalists.

One Australian researcher found that in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections, both Prabowo Subianto and Joko Widodo deployed cyber troops to create a positive image and tackle negative perceptions on social media. 

Prabowo Subianto and Joko Widodo attacked each other. Their respective cyber troops attacked newsrooms and journalists who criticised their idols. 

Tempo magazine, with its investigative pieces, was often targeted. From bullying journalists to the reproduction or manipulation of the magazine’s content, this digital army or ‘buzzer’ (paid active social media users for the practical political campaigns of presidential candidates) engages in rampant political disinformation and the politicisation of the internet to defeat quality journalism — a fundamental need for Indonesian citizens.

Watchdog journalism is close to death because the digital news ecosystem is based on ‘speed and popularity’, not accuracy. The danger is a democratic society unravelling.

The media face more battlefronts, especially with money. The public has little idea of how much quality news costs to produce. The lack of funding puts quality journalism and the economic wellbeing of journalists at risk.

Platforms such as Facebook and Google cannot be controlled by Indonesian news corporations. With not-for-profit journalism, which relies on idealists and volunteers, in danger of being unsustainable, government intervention (or crowdfunding and corporate donations) is key to maintain quality journalism for the public good.

To protect press freedom, quality news outlets need to be protected from rising costs. Without this, digital attacks and journalist security (physical and economic) as experienced by Konde.co and other investigative news platforms will continue.

These platforms are needed in an open and empowered society, especially ahead of the 2024 elections.

The growth of digital media in Indonesia since 2010 was not accompanied by a healthy political climate or policy.

Media organisations that support digital journalism and/or non-profit journalism emerged amid a new authoritarian media system which confronted alternative media.

There are no regulations that particularly protect the existence and guarantee the sustainability of digital and alternative journalism, against political power.

Since 1999, Indonesia has had a press law which only regulates the sustainability of the press in general, and it strongly favours pro-government mainstream media, not alternatives.

Initiatives to revise this law were not well-received by the mainstream press and media activists, who are worried the results will actually worsen press freedom.

Indonesia is pursuing several initiatives to save news media companies. In the US there is a scheme to migrate hundreds of local print media that carry investigations from commercial to social (non-profit) institutions.

Local media are entitled to subsidies from local authorities, assistance from philanthropic agencies and communities through subscriptions as a form of public appreciation.

Another solution is to strengthen local public broadcasters, combining them with local print media houses to promote local journalism.

The yearly funds United States authorities allocate to local public broadcasters can be shared with local newspapers through collaborative public journalism production.

A plan to produce a Presidential Decree on media sustainability in Indonesia since 2021 can be seen as a government intervention in the national interest to ensure the sustainability of good journalism. 

This means media corporations being able to continue operating as well as the public’s right to reliable news services and sound journalism activities.

The decree could be an entry point for maintaining good journalism, which in the digital era is not only served by mainstream media, but also digital-only alternative media.

Masduki is an associate professor and researcher in the Department of Communication, Universitas Islam Indonesia, Yogyakarta.

Article courtesy of 360info.

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