Local lad’s strife pips looming crisis

It’s one of journalism’s nastier cynicisms: When judging news values 100 distant deaths equals ten closer to home and one in the suburb where the paper circulates.  If public contempt for the media is to be cured then The West Australian is in much need of reform. 

On 11 September the Western third’s only daily ran a clichéd Page 8 lead:

Second WA man in Bali drug bust. Subiaco 46 yo in hot water after villa raid 

He was named in the picture story which claimed he’d been arrested ‘by Indonesian police who allege they seized a small amount of drugs in his villa north of the trendy Canggu area … If found guilty under Indonesia’s harsh drugs laws (he) could face a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison.’

An unpleasant situation for the gentleman, and our overseas reputation.  Around 3.4 million Australians reported using an illicit drug in the last 12 months according to the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey

Allegedly doing so in Indonesia suggests crassness beyond comprehension – apart from Renae Lawrence the Bali Nine survivors are still behind bars 15 years after being caught.  However, claims one arrestee has a ‘bipolar disorder’ warrant compassion if true.

There’s no indication the villa-dwellers nabbed by the cops are famous sportsmen, politicians’ sons or celebrities’ partners which might justify 414 words, but was this the most important story from our neighbour?

Unfortunately, no, as the ABC broadcast on 10 September and The Australian published next morning.  Both revealed something vastly more significant was underway.  The Oz headline read:  

Push to widen Jakarta restrictions in new ’emergency’. 

‘Indonesian public health experts have called for nationwide restrictions to arrest surging Covid-19 infections, warning the decision to reimpose a partial lockdown in Jakarta from next Monday would have little impact if it did not also apply to surrounding cities.

‘Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan announced the new restrictions late on Wednesday, after revealing the city’s hospital system was on the verge of collapse and that the Indonesian capital was facing a COVID-19 “emergency”.’

There are around 12 million people in the Indonesia capital which has been clobbered by Covid-19, accounting for a quarter of the Republic’s cases. Nationally there are more than 211,000 positive cases and 8,500 plus deaths – though some epidemiologists claim sloppy data collection and low testing rates suggest these figures are way too low.

By Saturday editors at the Australian on-line news source The New Daily (‘Not under control’: Coronavirus threatens to overrun Indonesia’s capital), and the Hong Kong Asia Times (Indonesia on verge of a deadly Covid disaster) had realised the significance.

Though not The West Australian, which followed with a double-page spread reporting anecdotes of purse snatches and allegations of middle-aged foreigners who overstay visas, ignore come-home calls and run out of cash, so turn to drug dealing.

The Australian’s competent 667-word story was sourced to a live-streamed media conference on Wednesday. Baswedan is a US-educated former university professor and as articulate in English as he is in Indonesian.  His office also issued a press statement, so no difficulty to cut and paste.

It wasn’t a slow news day in Perth with the plague and politics offering ample fillers between Harvey Norman ads. The city is only one-hour ahead of Jakarta (Sydney is three) so the issue was not deadlines, just news judgement.

The Australian went further with background and quotes from Indonesian epidemiologists and a Jakarta government statement.  This claimed hospital capacity had: ‘exceeded the safe limit and is expected to reach the maximum capacity on September 17, 2020. After that Jakarta health facilities will collapse.’

The Jakarta Post added an economy angle, reporting that recovery would take at least two to three years, according to Coordinating Economic Minister Airlangga.  So, there won’t be too much cash available to buy our goodies now the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is in place.

If all these dire warnings come to pass Indonesia is going to be in deep strife.  If big protests erupt the government could be overturned, as in 1998.

All this would probably strike most people as seriously newsworthy.  Though not on billionaire Kerry Stokes’ tabloid which reckons its readers want to know more about the doings of local drongos than a crisis gathering on the horizon and potentially threatening millions.

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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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