AIYA Q&A: The Role of the Media in Australia-Indonesia Relations

Posted on 1 September, 2015

On Thursday August 13th, the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association (AIYA) Victoria hosted a special panel event with speakers from the media to discuss ‘The Role of the Media in Australia-Indonesia Relations’. AIYA Victoria’s Marlene Millott gives us her recap of the discussions that took place on the night.

Over 70 people attended on the night with the event also streamed live on Periscope! Photo: Tim Flicker
Over 70 people attended on the night with the event also streamed live on Periscope! Photo: Tim Flicker

AIYA Victoria was proud to welcome media academics Ross Tapsell and Nasya Bahfen, former Indonesia correspondents Michael Bachelard and Helen Brown, and current Southeast Asia Editor at ABC International Sastra Wijaya. Moderated by Director of the Australia-Indonesia Centre Paul Ramadge, the evening was engaging and informative, steered by questions from the audience and moderator.

The often cited issue of negativity in reporting on Indonesia in the Australian press was the first topic of the evening. The panellists acknowledged that news in general was negative, and Helen Brown and Michael Bachelard explained that it is not their job to present Indonesia in a certain light. Nasya Bahfen added that news is formulaic, while Sastra Wijaya mentioned that ABC International is trying to counter this by sharing more stories of Indonesians living in Australia. Ross Tapsell said many in government and academia has said that since the deaths of the Balibo five, Australian journalists have been deliberately negative in their reporting as part of their ‘vendetta’ to destabilise the relationship.

This question was followed by the topic of the Australian press’s focus on ‘boats, beef, Bali and bombs’, which narrows Australians understanding of Indonesia. Helen Brown and Michael Bachelard conceded they spent a lot of time on some of these topics, but always tried to share a wide range of voices to explain different perspectives on the topic. Nasya Bahfen noted that while these topics were often a focus, different news organisations invested different amounts of resources to covering them. A foreign correspondent attempting to cover the issue in depth is far more meaningful than a short 15 second clip on the news. Ross Tapsell shifted the conversation, arguing that we should not rely solely on the media to inform the population about Indonesia. The education system is lacking Indonesian content such as information about the history of Indonesia and Indonesian language has been declining for decades.

Academic Ross Tapsell sees a lack of Indonesian literacy amongst Australians as a barrier in the Australia-Indonesia relationship. Photo: Tim Flicker
Ross Tapsell argues a lack of Indonesian literacy amongst Australians is a barrier in the Australia-Indonesia relationship. Photo: Tim Flicker

So who sets the tone on of Indonesian-related affairs? The media or the public? Neither, according to Nasya Bahfen. The government does. She says the role of journalists is to report on what the government says or does in regards to the Australia-Indonesia relationship, and its up to the media to hold them accountable. Ross Tapsell believes the tone is set by editors, so the story constantly becomes about Australia. Stories now are mostly about how our leaders are operating, and that is held up as a measure of the relationship. Sastra Wijaya believes it is the role of the media to seek out a range of stories from deep in the community, and put them into the public space. On the other hand, Michael Bachelard believes the stories are set by the public. “Journalism can educate and moderate tone, but we look for what people want to read,” he said.

All panellists agreed that journalists from Indonesia and Australia can learn a lot from each other. Helen Brown mentioned the Warta-Talk Program, which brings together Australian and Indonesian journalists once a month for confidential discussions about what is on their minds. She says that she has learnt both groups have a lot in common. Nasya Bahfen highlighted the important work by ACICIS Journalism Practicum sending young Australian journalists to Jakarta to work, and DFAT’s Elizabeth O’Neill award which is a journalist exchange program. “These face-to-face programs are very beneficial,” she said. Social media represents another way interactions are changing, as it is a new phenomenon with a lot of potential for shaping the media in both countries. Michael Bachelard discussed his experiences interacting with Indonesians on Twitter, saying it was a great way to find stories and contacts and a robust and interesting environment for conversations. Nasya Bahfen agreed, saying that “traditional media has to adapt or die”, and that Buzzfeed-type articles are growing in influence.

An audience member asked about government stalemates, and how the relationship can move past the focus on these. Sastra Wijaya noted that while relations took four months to normalise after the Bali 9 duo’s executions, everything underneath government was still functioning as normal. There were many visits and exchanges that just didn’t get attention from the media. Nasya Bahfen said that despite troubles in the relationship, it will always exist. Issues in the relationship “are like small waves hitting a boat, but the boat will always be there”, she said. Michael Bachelard believes the relationship isn’t entirely based on government relations. He said business links between the two countries are weak, and not enough people visit Indonesia, with the exception of tourists in Bali.

The final question of the evening was on an issue that both Indonesia and Australia can work on together: religious extremism. Helen Brown said that this is an issue that will continue for decades, and Australia and Indonesia have the opportunity to truly collaborate to share resources and intelligence on the issue. Both sides should also listen to each other, and reporting on the issue should come back to diversity of voices. Nasya Bahfen believes anything that develops in Indonesia will be covered closely in Australia, while Sastra Wijaya said that both Indonesia and Australia share concerns over the issue. He pointed to a recent piece by Noor Huda Ismail published by Fairfax that is a good example of a new perspective on the issue of extremism.

Moderator Paul Rampage summarising the discussion on the night. Photo: Tim Flicker
Moderator Paul Ramadge summarising the discussion on the night. Photo: Tim Flicker

AIYA Victoria Event’s Committee Head Seb McLellan closed the event. AIYA Victoria would like to thank all the panellists for their contribution to the evening, and Paul Ramadge for moderating. We would also like to thank all the volunteers that made the evening possible. AIYA Victoria’s next Q&A event will be held on 19 September to celebrate CAUSINDY (this year being held in Darwin), and will feature live-streaming of a CAUSINDY event, followed by a Q&A with an expert here in Melbourne. Stay tuned to our website and social media accounts for more updates.