Puff pieces harm one of Indonesia’s most respected newspapers

Dec 15, 2021
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Indonesia's male population remains in the grip of a serious tobacco addiction. (Image: Unsplash)

A publication that emerged as a champion of democracy after the long years of dictatorship has allowed its principles to go up in smoke.

The Jakarta Post used to be the showcase of liberal Indonesia. At its peak early this century, the award-winning English language daily was a must-read for diplomats, students, business people and decision-makers, a straight-shooter conscious of its responsibilities.  No longer.

Apart from being crippled by the pandemic economic crisis that’s ripped traditional media, and damaged by readers turning to sources online instead of turning pages, the JP has another wound — this time self-inflicted.

Once a strong campaigner against pernicious influences damaging society, the paper is undermining public health measures by taking money from the tobacco lobby. The latest this month is an ”advertorial” on the op-ed page ostensibly about a tree-planting program.

Editor-in-chief Taufiq Rahman stressed the ‘‘advertorial” was not from the Djarum cigarette company but the Djarum Foundation which ‘‘has had a long history placing ads on the Post pages … mostly promoting their sustainability campaign and at times their badminton success.”

The brand is owned by Indonesia’s two richest men, Robert and Michael Hartono who started the foundation in 1986. The president-director is Robert’s son Victor. Forbes magazine estimates the brothers’ net worth at $US42 billion.

Djarum (gramophone needle) makes — among other smokes — the wildly popular onomatopoetically tagged kretek, a mix of clove oil and buds with tobacco which crackle when smoked.

Indonesia is the only World Health Organization (WHO) member state in South-East Asia that hasn’t ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, nor banned direct promotion.

From its launch in 1983 The Jakarta Post’s management took a costly stand against tobacco ads, allowing staff and contributors to write scathing copy on the dangers of smoking and the industry’s sneaky tactics to work around gullible gatekeepers. The companies’ sophistry includes using ‘‘foundations”.

Laws force advertisers to add health alerts though not as the main message. The warnings are usually absent on banners used by ‘‘foundations” to sponsor concerts, sporting shows and education scholarships mainly pitched to the young. Brand names and logos are flaunted at events.

Though billed as non-profit NGOs the ‘‘foundations” are Trojan Horses helping manufacturers seduce Gen Z victims to replace the old wheezers dying horribly.

If the do-gooders were genuine altruists they’d christen their offspring with a neutral name adding several degrees of separation from the evildoer parents. Or give their guilt money anonymously to a church (the Hartonos are Christian) to build hospitals. But this is not about doing good.

Academic Dr Nathalia Tjandra reckons Indonesia has become a ‘‘Disneyland for Big Tobacco” as lax controls help the next generation get hooked: ‘‘Youngsters are still exposed through billboards, roadside stalls, music concerts, sporting events and the internet.”

An estimated 67 per cent of adult Indonesian men light up, though only 3 per cent of women; they fear being labelled prostitutes.

Other academics state ‘‘a fifth of Indonesians between 13 and 15 years old smoke, the highest rate in the region”. Dr Nicholas Hopkinson of the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London wants cigarettes to be seen ‘‘as an unethical product, not just as one that is harmful to individual consumers”.

Two Australia-based researchers argue that ‘‘the [Indonesian] government needs to stop the tobacco industry from wooing young people to avoid the country’s future burden from chronic smoking-induced disease”.

The Jakarta Post taking 30 pieces of silver gives traffickers of an addictive drug and carcinogenic an image boost through brand name placement (seven times) in what used to be a prestigious publication.

The ‘‘advertorial” includes a graphic that would make a fine educational resource.  No mention of tobacco or smoking in the 840-word puff. This is dressed as a worthy read by including emission reduction targets and comments from experts. In brief, greenwashing.

In a gross piece of unconscious irony, it alerts readers to ‘‘one of the major threats faced by humanity”. That’s a reference to climate change, not the dangerous neurotoxin Djarum and others sell and which kills an estimated 280,000 Indonesians every year — four times the official Covid death toll in the two years to date.

Also missing is the fact that smoking adds to global warming. According to a WHO-backed study, annual tobacco production internationally ‘‘contributes almost 84 million tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions to climate change”.

Although the foundation’s tree-planting program may have merit, ripping out tobacco crops and shutting factories would be far more beneficial to the environment and the nation’s health.

That’s not going to happen, for commerce and government are beyond detox. In 2018, Indonesia produced about 180,000 tonnes of tobacco while the tax office harvested $1.6 billion.

The JP’s pioneer writers sweated under the scrutiny of the authoritarian New Order regime of General Suharto. Despite the constraints, news the regime smothered was slipped past censors foxed by complex English. Nor did the blue pencils notice the clever placement of copy which led sage readers to fit the jigsaw together.

The paper thrived after the fall of Suharto in 1998 and the Republic’s transition to democracy. At one stage it was reportedly selling more than 40,000 copies daily.

Much of the Indonesian media is owned by diehard oligarchs from the Suharto era linked to religious groups and blatantly backing political parties. In this partisan jungle the JP ‘‘always bold, always independent’ was considered a cleanskin.

It was powered by a new generation of incandescently bright and idealistic journos energised by the nation’s rebirth. They were part of Reformasi, eager to tell the world what was going on and why.

Many had been educated overseas — often the US — and wrote good English. The JP moved to a 28-page, seven-day publication and a colour supplement.

Now it’s lost around 70 of its 100 staff, sacked or who quit – angered by the cutback to six days, no magazine and only 11 pages.  Rahman wouldn’t confirm the numbers lost but stayed buoyant, claiming an unspecified ‘‘uptick” in print subscribers.  Expansion to 16 pages is planned for 2022 and there have been new hires.

Although the paper seems indifferent to association with Djarum, it’s sensitive with China Watch, a four-page ‘‘supplement of news and commentary prepared by China Daily”. A front-page disclaimer reads: ‘‘The Post is not responsible for the supplement’s content.”

‘‘Nothing has changed when it comes to [banning] cigarette ads,’ said Rahman. ‘‘This probably doesn’t fit the narrative that the media is so desperate that now we take money from cigarette makers.

‘‘We don’t always do a good job on how these ads were presented, but we make sure that readers know these are paid contents and also we always steer clear of products prohibited by the Press Law to be subject of ads eg liquor, healthcare providers and some others.”

A publication jealous of its reputation wouldn’t be gulled by advertisers’ artifice.  Now would it need a Press Law to help stub out the proven harm caused by the industry.

Disclosure: The author was a regular paid contributor to The Jakarta Post for a good slice of this century.

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