Interning at Radio
Republik Indonesia (RRI) reminded me of family dinners at my Italian-Australian
grandparents’ house in the late 90s: Cigarettes and instant coffee in the
kitchen. Trophies, awards and decorative tissue box in the meeting rooms. And,
everybody wanted to feed me. It was truly a dream-come-true for a wannabe
foreign correspondence journalist like myself.
But, RRI is far
more than just an example of sensational Indonesian hospitality. They’ve made a
weighty contribution to Indonesian’s national identity. In many ways, they have
mirrored the rapid social progression of their environment. However, the
organisation’s legacy is still a huge part of their identity. It defines the
spirit with which they approach each passing challenge. The placement taught me
about Indonesian history, challenged my beliefs and changed the way I will work
The legacy of building a nation
RRI’s legacy has
been shaped and continues to be shaped, by Indonesia’s eventful modern history.
Stained by a struggle for independence from colonialism, a period of
authoritarian leadership and rapid reformation in recent years.
Indonesia, I learnt that half a millennia ago there was no such thing as
Indonesia. Instead, there were 17 thousand islands populated by countless
cultural and ethnic groups. I didn’t realise how recently Indonesia declared
itself a sovereign nation.
Unifying such a
diverse population was no small task. A perceived sense of national identity,
despite cultural differences, was an important political tool to solidify the
infant nation’s unity. Nobody recorded the original declaration of
independence. But, 25 days later Sukarno re-stated it for RRI listeners. This
was their first broadcast and the recording is the main feature in their
privately owned media is the norm. However, this was only given the chance to
flourish free from bureaucratic choke-hold in the late 90s. For the first two
decades after independence, the state controlled the radio frequencies across
the archipelago. RRI and Television Republik Indonesia (TVRI) were the sole
broadcasters. Media was seen by the government as a tool to build a
A fight for press freedom
Kabul Budiono has
worked for in state-funded broadcasting since the late seventies. he has
Performed numerous roles; from an announcer, to director of RRI.
I walked nervously
into TVRI’s head office; it was far more modern than RRI’s. Mr Budiono wore
thick-framed glasses, brightly coloured batik and a jovial grin throughout our
entire meeting. It was easy to forget I was sitting across from the elected
member of TVRI.
always been central to RRI’s official mandate. When Budiono began working for
RRI In the late seventies, this was not put into practice.
One election year,
the city was bursting at the seams with people and politics. Budiono was a
young journalist working in Jakarta. He was forbidden from reporting criticisms
of President Suharto and his political party Golkar.
While Suharto won
the election, Golkar lost sorely in Papua. Budiono wanted to know why. He
contacted academics and pieced together a story. That day, the 1pm state-funded
broadcaster criticised a president for the first time in its 25-year history.
The Ministry of Information was not impressed. But, “I am still here,” he told
me with a satisfied smirk.
Perhaps this could
have served as a canary in Suharto’s authoritarian gold-mine. After his regime
fell during the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 90s, RRI made the official
shift from state to public status. Officially, they now represented the
citizens of Indonesia, not merely the President.
Impartial but not at every cost
RRI, as with the
rest of the nation, has changed a lot since the 1998 reformation. They now
operate in a starkly different political climate.
Since 2002, their
independence has been protected by the KPI (Indonesian Broadcasting
Commission). According to political scientist Douglas Ramage, “Indonesia has
one of the freest media’s in all of South East Asia”.
Several of my
colleagues at RRI told me they are free to say whatever they want.
They have a
station dedicated to criticising the government (Pro3) and strive to present
multiple sides of every argument.
important. But, so is their national image. Reporters I spoke to see foreign
broadcast as an opportunity to showcase Indonesia as more than just the land of
tsunamis, earthquakes and the Bali bombings.
On top of that,
national security also impacts editorial decisions. Budiono said TVRI and RRI
will always be on the same side as the Republic of Indonesia in these matters.
“We’re not like the BBC in that way,” he said referencing the British
broadcasters stance against the Thatcher government during the Iraq war.
When I asked
Budiono about RRI’s coverage of the pro-independence movement in West Papua he
said, “we are free to have an open dialogue. But, if there is a weaponised
movement trying to become free from Indonesia, we have to think about the sake
of the nation.”
RRI and TVRI are
no longer governed by the state. However, they possess an entrenched state
culture. This seemed fitting considering their crucial role in developing the
However, I’ve been
taught to view Journalism as a figure operating primarily to hold those in
power accountable; like a final puzzle-piece essential to a picture of a
healthy democracy. The memory of my first-year lecturer howling “the fourth
estate” in her thick Australian accent is etched in my memory. As a result, I
found some of my experiences at RRI challenging.
Most of the
reporting I did was inside air-conditioned hotels and government buildings. I
recognise the importance of authoritative sources. But, it seemed strange to
spend a morning drinking tea and talking achievements with diplomats,
government officials and academics.
But, of course, I
didn’t come to Indonesia to have every one of my standing beliefs about
Journalism affirmed. I don’t agree with the way RRI does every little thing.
But, am I supposed to? Unlike many of the reporters at RRI, I’ve never lived
through a period of civil unrest in my country.
journalists at RRI walk a fine line between considering national interest and
elevating individuals in their society. It is complex and messy and truly
impressive. It requires an attention to social, historical and cultural nuance
probably impossible for a foreign journalist.
Working at RRI was
an invaluable experience that taught me the impact history and culture has on
media. It is an experience I will take with me throughout the rest of my
studies and beyond.
Lisa Grace Favazzo is a student living in Melbourne, Australia. This
summer she took part in a journalism professional placement program run by the
Australian Consortium for In-country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS). Her trip
highlights include speaking (terrible) Bahasa Indonesia, eating onde-onde and
interning with the countries public radio broadcaster; RRI.