Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Journalists biased by cash in Indonesia?

Oct 21, 2006 Denpasar --- News conferences in Indonesia tend to be catered affairs, journalists usually receive a takeaway box of food and underneath is often a brown envelope.
Inside will be a wad of banknotes, in appreciation of their attendance and expectation of a positive story.
They call it "envelope journalism," a custom not only practised by flash lawyers and dodgy developers; major corporations, government agencies and even charities regularly distribute cash to the local media.
On a couple of occasions gifts have been given to foreign journalists, but they have handed them back.
This week, two Government ministries conceded to The Age that they continued to hand out envelopes of cash to journalists who attended press events, despite President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's campaign to eradicate corruption across his nation.
The pay-offs are longstanding, but have grown more sophisticated in recent years, according to insiders. Press conference envelopes normally contain between $10 and $100, but many journalists have established bank accounts where corporations can directly wire much larger amounts.
Tomorrow marks Idul Fitri, the end of the major Muslim celebration of Ramadan, a traditional time of gift giving, when journalists expect and even demand contributions from the individuals and authorities they cover.
Editor-in-chief of the Jakarta Post Endy Bayuni concedes the practice presents a major ethical dilemma. "They don't say it, but there's an understanding they expect you to write positively.
"Normally people turn a blind eye to a small payment, but sometimes it's much more and can be an attempt to bribe a journalist.
"Around Muslim holidays it gets even crazier, because some government authorities and companies feel they have to give gifts to journalists."
This week many local journalists were demanding an annual hand-out to celebrate the end of Ramadan, but some take the process a step further, said Mr Bayuni.
"They ask for money, threatening businesses with negative publicity. It's like extortion, it happens quite a lot."
Indonesian journalists' salaries are meagre, often exceeded by envelope income.
"Some organisations don't pay any salary," said Mr Bayuni. "They just give the journalists a press card and let them raise money from news sources."
The issue received some coverage in local media this week, but only because one provincial administration in the town of Semarang complained it was receiving too many requests from individuals posing as journalists.
Nearly 500 people had visited government offices demanding cash to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
Agus Utomo, head of the mass media section at the provincial public relations and information agency, said they were required to produce identity cards. "How much money they were given, I don't know," he said.
A second official said the journalists received about $10 each.
A senior national Government official confirmed he regularly made payments to journalists at press conferences. If they requested an Idul Fitri bonus they would also receive it, he said.
One journalist who covers the military happily admitted to receiving payments from officials, up to and including the head of the Defence Ministry. "Of course I have," he said. "I cover security affairs, so I often cover army issues.
"Usually the army provides envelopes. These people will think we're arrogant if we refused taking it. I always take the money and share it with the soldiers. That's the way."
Mr Bayuni said several mainstream media organisations, including the Jakarta Post, had adopted strict rules against journalists taking envelopes. He has had to sack one reporter for demanding money from news sources.
"If the messengers themselves are corrupt, how do you trust the message?" he asked. "We need to address this problem seriously so we can
be part of the campaign against corruption. But at the moment we are part of the problem."
With Idul Fitri looming, Dr Yudhoyono's administration banned giving gifts to senior officials and judges, but retreated after complaints from officials and retailers, saying the value of the gifts should be limited.
State Minister for Administrative Reform Taufik Effendi this week pronounced that small gifts such as batik shirts were OK, but "it is prohibited to give car keys for instance".
Previously judges and others have received keys as an Idul Fitri gift, keys that just happened to fit the new Jaguar parked outside.


So can we take any stories by journalists in Indonesia as unbiased truth or should we suspect all to be tainted by money? Should the accuracy of every story reporting on the Indonesian military or government be regarded with suspect? Or is a negative report a sign of no payment? I guess the reporter from AP in the previous posting got a cash envelope for painting terrorist group Islamic Defenders Front in a harmless positive light by calling them a Muslim association.

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