DUNCAN GRAHAM Focusing on Washington, glancing at Jakarta

Jul 12, 2019

The 17 April Indonesian elections and fallout could have been big news in Australia.  According to some experts they should have been.

Instead media consumers Down Under got more of US President Donald Trump’s distant domestic political shenanigans than they did of the blood and fire crises facing their neighbor nation and its re-elected President Joko Widodo.

The result from the world’s third largest democracy staging the world’s biggest one-day election will impact many countries, but most particularly the adjacent southern continent.

Although the times have been tumultuous in Indonesia, consumers of the ABC’s sound and vision news bulletins would have concluded most salient events were happening 13,000 kilometers distant in the Northern Hemisphere – not next door.

Using the ABC’s website search box, ‘Widodo’ appears only a dozen times compared with 150 for ‘Trump’ in the same seven-week period.  ‘Indonesia‘ featured on 60 occasions.

The Australian newspaper did better with 36 mentions of Widodo.

This survey doesn’t measure story length, prominence, or note overlap. It’s a crude measure of quantity, not quality.  That doesn’t undermine the point: the gap is too wide.

The political happenings in Indonesia’s during the last few weeks appear to have been judged by news editors in Australia as minor against those in America, even though the US didn’t feature an election or resulting tumult.

Perth-based Indonesia Institute President Ross Taylor said: “The statistics simply reinforce our Institute’s view that the only time we here in Australia engage with Indonesia through the media – or as a community – is when … something shocking happens in the rest of Indonesia.

“Our media reported how the Jakarta riots’ terrible scenes were a result of people protesting against alleged vote rigging and anti-Widodo sentiment … The main contributors to those ‘riots’ were young thugs, Islamic radicals combined with disaffected youth happy to get three dollars each to create a ‘protest’. That should have been a story in its own right.”

Australian journalism is facing crook times; an estimated 3,000 jobs have been deleted this decade, most from newspaper newsrooms as consumers click screens rather than flick pages. Rip-and-read reports, mainly from the Anglosphere, often fill space.

That leaves much heavy lifting to the public broadcaster.  The ABC is the most trusted news organization in the nation, according to Roy Morgan Research’s MEDIA Net Trust Survey.

Told that Trump was eclipsing Widodo by a factor of twelve on ABC news sites, Corporation spokeswoman Sally Jackson responded:  “A keyword in the search box does not surface all ABC coverage. It is not a reliable basis to draw conclusions from.”

When asked what the search box misses and how searching could be refined she added: “We did a lot of coverage – both planned and breaking news … we had two reporters on the ground reporting for all platforms … and many live crosses at night. The Indonesia story was an important one that was covered thoroughly for all our readers, listeners and viewers.”

That’s not contested.  The issue is the disproportionate attention and higher ranking given long term to US affairs above those inIndonesia.

Dr Andrew Dodd, Director of the Center for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University told this paper(The Jakarta Post) low rates of news coverage “reflect the sad fact that in Australia we are still not switched on to the great changes occurring in Indonesia.

“We are still largely ignorant of the people and parties and policies in play and why the protests are occurring. This does not reflect well on Australia’s media or population, given so much is at stake.

“Unless the story involves an Aussie backpacker doing something stupid in Bali it seems we just don’t really connect with stories inIndonesia. We’re too busy focusing on the latest idiocy occurring at the centers of Western culture – in Washington and London.”

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto had some disquieting ideas.

The former general publicly promoted Ghost Fleet a US sci-fi novel which forecasts that by 2030 Indonesia will be brought to its knees by cunning Westerners plundering the archipelago’s resources.

It gets worse.  According to Dr Edward Aspinall and Dr Marcus Mietzner, both from the Australian National University, Indonesian democracy could have died with a Subianto win.

That’s what they claimed back in 2014.  This year they analyzed a Subianto speech and concluded he believed ‘direct elections were not compatible with the Indonesian cultural character and gave a strong signal that he wishes to do away with the practice.’

The possibility of a giant dictatorship on the doorstep led by ‘a Trumpian figure who lives in a self-created bubble of imagined greatness’ according to Mietzner, should have turned Australian media attention to the islands above.

Another factor: Had the May mayhem which followed Subianto’s defeat continued Australia might have been hit with a flood of refugees fleeing the violence. That happened in 1998.

President Widodo has visited Australia officially three times, but the Prime Minister he most liked, Malcolm Turnbull, was deposed last year in a Liberal Party coup and replaced by Scott Morrison.  He’s infamous for riling the Republic by proposing to shift Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Relationship repairs will be required.

Next comes a new Widodo Cabinet; few Australians could name the personalities and parties involved, though they’d be familiar with key players in US politics.

Commented Taylor: “As a community, Indonesia is simply the stranger next door; yet when Australians spend time in Indonesiathey realize that Indonesians are gracious people with a great sense of humor, value family and value good friends. They also aspire to the things we seek.”

Which are deeper and wider understandings of each other.  That comes through expanded media coverage of issues and individuals on both sides of the shallow and narrow Arafura and Timor Seas.

A version of this story was first published in The Jakarta Post.  Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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