Intimidation. Violence. Hacking. These are among the threats Indonesian journalists face just to do their jobs. Although Indonesia has made impressive gains in political freedom in the last two decades, an apparent backsliding of democracy in recent years threatens that progress. USAID’s New Partnerships Initiative (NPI) responded by creating Media Empowerment for Democratic Integrity and Accountability (MEDIA), a project to strengthen Indonesia’s free press including through partnerships with seven local organizations.
“A free media is the building block of democracy,” said Eric Sasono, MEDIA chief of party. “Reporters working safely and freely, without interference from government or business influences, can bring much-needed attention to Indonesia’s challenges.”
Striving toward Democracy after Colonization, Dictatorship
Indonesia is the world's third largest democracy, but it has a tumultuous political past, including more than a century of Dutch colonization and 30 years of rule by the corrupt dictator Suharto. Since 1999, when the country held its first truly free election, democracy has taken hold. Despite impressive progress, the country’s march toward full democracy remains hampered by problems such as widespread corruption, alleged vote-buying, misinformation, discrimination against minorities, political extremism, use of excessive force by police, and new laws to silence dissent.
In its 2020 Freedom in the World report, Freedom House, a Washington-based nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks democracy, gave Indonesia a ranking of “partly free.” The country’s “freedom score” was 59 out of 100, a two-point decline from the previous year. Indonesia is not alone; Freedom House noted that democracy has declined worldwide since 2006 and experienced a significant hit last year, with scores dropping in 73 countries that represent 75 percent of the global population.
USAID Taps Existing and New Partners
USAID’s MEDIA leaders hope the project will help reverse this negative trend, enabling Indonesia to get back on track as a leading force for democracy in Asia. In 2020, USAID awarded Internews, an international nonprofit that promotes in-depth, trustworthy reporting around the globe, an $8 million grant to manage the five-year project. The organization is a traditional partner for USAID and has been working in Indonesia for 20 years. “We’ve built up a lot of trust across the media sector, which is critically important,” says Brian Hanley, regional director for Asia at Internews. In keeping with NPI’s priority of utilizing and strengthening new and local organizations, Internews will be distributing subgrants to seven Indonesia-based implementing partners to create more robust partnership on-the-ground:
- Alliance of Independent Journalists Indonesia (AJI), a group with more than 2,000 members, promoting press freedom and quality journalism
- Indonesian Anti-Slander Society (MAFINDO), a grassroots anti-disinformation task force and fact-checking outlet
- Indonesian Cyber Media Association (AMSI), an organization of more than 300 cyber media companies
- Indonesian Association for Media Development (PPMN), an institution aimed at expanding access to information by increasing media capacity and improving media literacy
- Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), a group dedicated to monitoring corruption in Indonesia
- Journalists Association for Diversity (SEJUK), a union of journalists dedicated to protecting religious and sexual minorities
- Legal Aid Center for the Press (LBH Pers), a group that provides legal aid to defend press freedom
Challenges and Goals for Indonesian Democracy
According to one local MEDIA implementing partner, AJI, reporters in Indonesia were victims of at least 84 violent acts in 2020, the highest number the group has recorded in the past 14 years. In October 2020 alone, AJI reported 28 incidents of police action—including intimidation, violence, and detention—directed toward journalists who were covering mass protests against an unpopular new law limiting worker protections. AJI also noted several instances of hacking, doxing (publishing individuals’ private information on the Internet for negative purposes), and other cyber-interference targeting Indonesian media outlets and reporters. “The legal and physical safety of journalists is under attack,” MEDIA’s Sasono said, adding that female journalists are frequently targeted. Tracking these incidents, as AJI does, is critical to understanding worrisome trends.
At both the national and local levels, corruption is a problem, as is the safety of the journalists reporting on it, said Adnan Topan Husodo, the coordinator of ICW, another implementing partner. “We want to encourage our journalists to cover corruption,” he said. “Many times, when they face threats trying to do this, they give up.”
Religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities also present a challenge for journalists—both in representation of minorities in the ranks of media outlets and in coverage of them in news reports, which often present them in a biased, unflattering manner, MEDIA’s Sasono said. “We want to make sure the media is reaching out to minorities to include them in their reporting,” he said. “Indonesia is very multicultural. We’re trying to build harmony in the country between these different groups [media and minorities].”
MEDIA was conceived as a way to address these issues and many others facing the press in Indonesia, but another major benefit of the project will be the robust ongoing collaboration it is fostering among the local implementing partners. When MEDIA ends in the summer of 2025, the seven implementing partners intend to continue meeting and working together on common issues. “We don’t know what the political or social situation will be then,” Sasono said. “But our goal is to achieve a better environment in which the media can operate.”
This article first appeared on USAID.gov.