As World’s Fourth Most Populous Nation, Democratic Indonesia Demands Coverage

Interview with Gatekeeper Martha Malan

Indonesia 2000

By Martha Malan

June 09, 2009

Panicky villagers push their way onto a ferry to flee a massacre in Indonesia's Maluku Islands, then disappear when the overloaded boat sinks. Rebels in Fiji hold members of the deposed government hostage at the parliament. A deadly virus in Malaysia that killed 84 people and thousands of hogs is discovered in a fruit bat common across Southeast Asia.

Those are among recent international stories and briefs in the Pioneer Press from Asian island countries. But for many readers, those countries undoubtedly remain abstract, little-understood and seemingly unconnected to daily life here.

In late June, the newspaper's nation/world editor, Martha Malan, had an opportunity to spend a week in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital.

She joined editors from 11 other newspapers across the United States, including the Wisconsin State Journal, on a fact-finding visit sponsored by the IRP Fellowships in International Journalism. The goal was to raise editors' awareness about the increasingly important role Indonesia is playing in the world.

Last week, Malan returned to the newsroom, with an elaborately carved souvenir nameplate to sit atop her computer and the fresh challenge of making stories about Indonesia and its region come alive in the newspaper.

She agreed to answer questions about the trip and what it could mean for Pioneer Press readers:

Q. Why is it useful for you, as nation/world editor, to travel to a relatively small country on the other side of the globe without strong ties to Minnesota?

A. Indonesia is not a small country. Its area is about three times the size of Texas, and its population of 210 million is the world's fourth-largest. This is as good an example as any to explain why it was important for me to learn more about the country: because I knew so little.

Q. What do we need to know about Indonesia today, and why should we be interested?

A. Visiting the country, meeting its people, learning about its culture, one can't help but be fascinated by the unfolding drama in Indonesia. It faces big difficulties at this time in its history:

Before the Asian money crisis, it had one of the strongest economies in Asia. It was the country hit hardest by the crisis, and it has been the slowest to recover.

Since the 1998 overthrow of President Suharto after a 32-year reign, Indonesia has been struggling to establish itself as a true democracy -- the world's first Islamic democracy. There is concern over whether President Abdurrahman Wahid will be able to lead this effort, starting with the creation of democratic institutions from the ground up.

Even Indonesians refer to their country as ``the most corrupt'' in the world How will the new government fix this, a necessity if confidence in the government and the economy is to be rebuilt?

Will Wahid be able to hold the country together despite strife in the Maluku Islands, West Papua and Aceh?

Q. Now that Indonesia's journalists have freedom of the press, what difficulties are they grappling with?

A. Indonesian journalists are reveling in their new freedom. It is a very heady time for them. At the same time, there is concern that many journalists have not had adequate training. Journalists themselves are working to raise standards through improved training and a broader understanding of journalistic ethics.

Q. It seems that stories we see about countries such as Indonesia often are breaking news about ferry sinkings and rebel upheavals. Granted, those are newsworthy, but are there ways to help readers better understand the important issues?

A. I think so. While we cannot provide day-to-day coverage of everything that happens in Indonesia, we can present longer, more analytical pieces about the primary political, economic and social issues. We need to do this often enough to keep our readers current.

Q. What made the most impression on you personally?

A. At a botanical garden in Bogor, we chanced upon a group of elementary school children who had been assigned to practice speaking English. We were a bonanza for them, and they for us.

``What is your name?'' ``How long you live in Indonesia?'' ``What is your opinion of our botanical garden?''

They were beautiful kids; you couldn't help but wish them and their country well.

Malan invites you to comment and suggest particular stories you would like to read about Indonesia. She can be reached at (651) 228-5460 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).