DUNCAN GRAHAM Don’t cry for us,, Indonesia

Some foreign correspondents in Jakarta have done a bunk, leaving their Indonesian fixers and colleagues to confront the catastrophes they fear to face.

That’s a brutal way of putting their exodus but as journalists used to grinding government spin and PR euphemisms down into plain speech they’ll know it’s right.

This is not a shot at those with personal reasons to head home like Ambassador Gary Quinlan, 69, who is reported to have health problems. Some may have been pulled by nervous editors. Safety must always come ahead of the job – think Balibo Five.

More serious than the flight of a few journos is the question: Will they ever return? Not the individuals, but the commitment.

The ABC’s Anne Barker was honest enough to try and rationalise her ‘heartbreaking decision’ to do a dash:

https://www.abc.net.au/news/about/backstory/news-coverage/2020-04-16/anne-barker-leaving-abc-indonesia-bureau-due-to-coronavirus/12145562

Barker says she had ‘a duty to be here (in Indonesia) and the ABC had a duty to tell the story to the Australian people’. Her unfulfilled pledge is worthy – but do her bosses have a commitment?

Once managers discover they can cover foreign spots from desks in Melbourne using native speakers which is already happening, why fully reopen in Jakarta when this overstretched metaphor ‘snaps back’?

Nothing beats Being There. As Barker notes: ‘This might be the biggest story in Indonesia since the Aceh tsunami or the fall of Suharto 22 years ago’.

The Foreign Correspondent’s gig is the job many seek but few are chosen. They need to be determined, flexible, innovative, tough. It’s the SAS of reporting. Every posting is different – Indonesia is challenging but hugely rewarding, awash with stories.

A piece-to-camera while rioters are torching tyres brings viewers into the picture. The old label was Eyewitness. The frisson of fear in the ad-libs and sideways glances treats viewers seriously. Scripted voice-over-vision edited in a studio 5,200 kilometres away does not. We can get equal or better feeds by Googling.

The presence of Australian reporters underpins the repetitious clichés about Indonesia being our most important international relationship, but the expenses are horrendous. The old Fairfax office in Jakarta was said to cost $600,000 a year to maintain.

The AFR reopened its Jakarta office only after getting a grant last year from the billionaire philanthropist Judith Neilson.

The other option is to scrap FCs forever and use feeds from local media, translating the commentary and maybe topping and tailing the package. Fillers and funnies can be poached. If the story is big, just zip in and out. For an explainer ask an academic in Canberra.

A decade ago Richard Sambrook from Reuters Institute asked Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant? His report argued news organisations should change to ‘a more open and networked approach with new partnerships with locally based services and social media sites’.

Unfortunately the Indonesia agency Antara is semi-government, bland and cautious. It’s no AAP. The quality of its English-language service is a canine’s wake-up dish. The TV stations are owned by tycoons neck deep in the political swamp and indifferent to impartiality.

However there are English-competent journos in Indonesia who have studied overseas and determined to preserve ethical standards and balance. Most work, or have worked, with The Jakarta Post daily and the weekly newsmag Tempo.

If the ABC can cooperate with The Guardian and the RMIT (on fact-checking) why not nudge closer to Indonesian media as Sambrook suggests?

Apart from the few skilled linguists like Dr Frank Palmos who covered Jakarta in the early 1960s by himself after learning Indonesian in Melbourne, most journalists stationed outside the Anglosphere rely on local fixers to set up interviews, interpret and translate. These are the workmates the FC’s have left behind.

The Indonesian government’s early response to the pandemic was much like the US and Britain – scandalously reprehensible. It’s way behind in testing. The death toll is certainly far higher than the current official count of 635 (23 April) because proper investigations into mortalities are rare.

We have telemedicine, contact-free consultations with a distant doc. Now we have telejournalism, reporting Jakarta from Melbourne. Why stop there? The BBC could do it for us from London, the VOA from Washington.

Once the way we saw the world – and the people next door – was important.

Duncan Graham www.indonesianow.blogspot.com is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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