How citizens use mobile news to inform their communities in Indonesia

by Jessica Weiss
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

In West Borneo, Indonesia, palm oil farmers monitor big business and send the news they find to their fellow farmers via mobile phones.

They learned how to gather and report this news--which is critical to their livelihoods--as part of a program led by Knight International Journalism Fellow Harry Surjadi. Surjadi, a longtime environmental journalist, says the program fills an information void in a poor, rural community too often ignored by Indonesia's mainstream media.

The farmers and other citizen journalists around Indonesia have learned to share information and news reports via text messaging using the FrontlineSMS and Swara voice-over-mobile systems. A training center at Ruai TV, in the provincial capital, trains people in basic journalism, including understanding of facts, observation skills, data collection, news writing for SMS, inverted pyramid and basic reporting.

Surjadi is also taking the concept beyond citizen journalism, to empower influential local community members and activists, whom he calls "information brokers" or "IBs," to use journalism tools to inform community members about issues such as climate change. Many are indigenous communities near forests facing environmental conflicts.

"We are proving that communication can empower communities to resolve and change policies that have a negative impact on people's lives," Surjadi says.

Surjadi talked with IJNet about his work and the potential for citizen journalism in Indonesia.

IJNet: You've worked in environmental reporting for 20 years. Have you seen changes in coverage of the issues since you started?

Harry Surjadi: I can say there have been no big changes in environmental reporting in the mainstream media. Environmental issues have become an important subject, but there are still more political and economic subjects on the front pages of mainstream media. Most environmental problems are faced by communities in prone areas and they are poor people. Mainstream media have no interest in reporting these cases. Some mainstream media in Indonesia belong to "big guys" in businesses with bad business practices related to environment. Their media have never reported the cases that related to their businesses. I founded the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists and the organization continues growing. Some serious environmental journalists have their own blogs with environmental news. But the mainstream are still the same. My job is to see how citizen journalism can empower communities that never get attention from mainstream media or even from government.

IJNet: How are citizens becoming a more important part of the news ecosystem in Indonesia?

HS: Citizen journalism began in 2005, but it was not named citizen journalism then. For instance, a nationwide radio network had a program that allowed citizens to call in to report news events such as traffic accidents or traffic jams.

Now, almost every mainstream media organization (print, radio and television) has a section for citizen journalism. Citizen participation in news production is growing. Especially in big cities, where there is Internet access and smartphones, more citizens are aware of the opportunity to participate in news production for mainstream media. Their motivation is to share information or just to express themselves. Media organizations have limited human resources, but they would like to cover more news.

IJNet: In your experience, do professional and citizen journalists need and/or depend on each other?

HS: In terms of learning from each other, yes, professional and citizen journalists need and depend on each other. In terms of covering and writing stories and sending news/information, most of the time they work independently. When I do my training workshops, I always tell the CJs to work as a team. Since each community has at least two CJs, they can work together. In one community, the 20 CJs who joined the training workshop decided that only one of them would submit the news. Others would report to that person.

IJNet: What distinguishes a citizen journalist from an information broker?

HS: The CJ's role is to send reports to a media organization, while the information broker is a CJ with the added role of sharing important information with community members. An information broker does not have to report to mainstream media, but can report to the organization he/she belongs to, such an an NGO or non-mainstream media, like a community radio station. The information broker’s role is to find important information or data that is needed by the community to solve problems. The information broker becomes the eyes, ears, and voice of the community. Likewise, the information broker is a source of information for the community.

IJNet: Can you give us an example?

HS: In October 2011, I had a training workshop in Silat Hilir [in West Borneo], where many participants were members of Asmoja, a palm oil farmers cooperative who had been fighting for their rights against a large company for more than 10 years. When we met them, the spirit of the farmers was very low. Some of them had sold their land to the company or to other people from the cities.

My co-trainers and I helped the Asmoja cooperative install FrontlineSMS as an internal communication channel. After the training, there were two information brokers, Hendrik and Simon, who became active in finding information for their Asmoja cooperative members.

Hendrik, especially, knew how to use the system. He knew what kind of information the community needed. He used the system to raise the spirit of the Asmoja members. He sent SMS to inform members about regulations on palm oil plantations. He [distributed] information on illegal cutting and clearing of forests. He found information on how the company had borrowed money from a bank on behalf of Asmoja members [although] the Asmoja had never approved it. He found out the collective owed a large debt that it was unable to pay.

Last month, after a year fighting for their rights, in a special meeting with high-ranking local government officials, bank representatives and police, the Asmoja cooperative got their rights back. The company agreed to pay the debt and the farmers got the right to manage their own lands.

You might say Hendrik is more of an activist than a citizen journalist. But he was practicing journalism in order to find and publish the information that was important for his organization. He was using journalistic concepts (collect, process, publish) to empower.

Learn more about Surjadi’s work here.

Image: Harry Surjadi trains CJs in Borneo. Provided by Harry Surjadi.