Spying, refugees and executions: Inside the Indonesian and Australian media
January-March 2016
By: Ross Tapsell

Australia has often typecast its nearest northern neighbor, Indonesia, and general perceptions of it remain rudimentary. The emphasis is placed on Indonesia as a predominantly Muslim country with a large population, with little cultural similarities to white Australia. As such, Indonesia has always been seen as a major threat by sections of Australian society.

A 2013 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade report concluded that knowledge about Indonesia in Australia is “poor and perceptions are very mixed.” It showed that 53 percent of Australians did not recognize Indonesia as a democracy and around one-half of those surveyed felt Indonesia was “a threat to national security.” This despite consistent claims from both the Australian and Indonesian governments that bilateral relations have never been friendlier. This disjuncture between what the politicians say about their close personal friendship and the general attitudes of the Australian population about Indonesia is nothing new. In 1974, then Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was invited to accompany Indonesian President Soeharto to his hometown in Central Java. Whitlam saw this as a personal gesture of friendship and a pivotal moment in Australia-Indonesia relations. Yet Australians began to single out Indonesia as a “threat” during the mid-1970s when Indonesia’s military invaded East Timor. During the 1980s, both Labor and Coalition governments in Australia found it beneficial to work closely with Indonesia, and a 1987 Defense White Paper specifically emphasized the importance of maintaining and improving bilateral relations.

Still, during this time, surveys showed that Australians regarded Indonesia as the country most likely to threaten national security. During the early 1990s, Prime Minister Paul Keating established a close friendship with Soeharto, and the countries’ respective foreign ministers, Ali Alatas and Gareth Evans, had a very close personal friendship. Yet suspicions lingered in the public mind in both Australia and Indonesia. A 1993 survey revealed that 57 percent of Australians believed Indonesia could threaten Australia’s security within the next 10 to 15 years. In 2004, democratically elected Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Australian Prime Minister John Howard claimed to have developed a close personal relationship. But in that same year, opinion polls showed a steadily increasing proportion of Australians who nominated Indonesia as their country’s principal long-term security threat.

A 2006 poll placed Indonesia fourth, behind only the so-called Axis of Evil – North Korea, Iran and Iraq – as a country Australians felt was the greatest threat to their national security. More respondents agreed with the statement, “Australia is right to worry about Indonesia as a military threat,” than “Indonesia is an emerging democracy.” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Yudhoyono took the rhetoric up a notch, with the former saying, “We’re not only neighbors, not only friends, we’re strategic partners.” The current state of Australia-Indonesia relations was further expressed by Canberra’s adoption of the slogan “A new partnership in a new era.” Yet Australians’ impressions of Indonesia continued to be one of authoritarian rule, corruption and as a military threat.

Conversely, Indonesia does not conduct surveys of its citizens’ views of Australia or Australians. The Indonesian media rarely covers issues and events within Australian politics and society, and the Indonesian government has little by way of overt statements regarding Australia unless it is speaking to an Australian audience. As Ken Ward of the Lowy Institute noted in a paper published last year, at a popular level it is Indonesia’s northern neighbor Malaysia that arouses the most hate, in particular around the ownership of various cultural assets. As we shall see in this essay, when the Indonesian media reports about its neighbors, it can often be framed around “sovereignty” or “foreign intervention.” Malaysia cops much of this abuse, but Australia has not been left out of these frames.

Australia’s role in East Timor’s independence in 1999, as well as many Australians’ support for Free West Papua activists, has led to some suspicion among Indonesian society of Australia’s intentions. Educational and family ties are central to “people-to-people links,” but for the most part a large proportion of Indonesians regard Australia mostly with apathy. More recently, the constant issues surrounding the Australia-Indonesia “relationship” have become more dominant in Indonesian politics and the media. During the 2014 presidential debate on international relations, a question was raised by candidate Joko Widodo as to the unstable nature of the Australia-Indonesia relationship. His rival, Prabowo Subianto, commented that Australia has a “suspicion or phobia” about Indonesia. Joko responded, “We have to show that we are a country with dignity and not let other countries treat us as weaklings.” It was a sign of things to come in Joko’s handling of foreign relations in the early months of his presidency. 

Thrown into this mix is a discussion about the role of the media to inform and enlarge information about each other in the popular consciousness. Only in bilateral relationships with Indonesia is the Australian media considered a crucial element, and only in relations with Indonesia has the role of the media been such a contentious issue over such a long period. The result is an explosive mix of government officials blaming media organizations for the lack of responsibility in furthering the relationship, and journalists accusing government of hindering their movements and suppressing information. This essay outlines the role of the mainstream media in the bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia. It asks to what extent previous government attitudes and responses to the media reporting in Indonesia has been effective, and examines options for both Australia and Indonesia to more effectively harness the media to improve bilateral outcomes. It stems from my research on this topic over 10 years, in particular from my book “By-Lines, Balibo, Bali Bombings: Australian Journalists in Indonesia.”

Government and media

The dominant orthodoxy on the role of the media emphasizes troublesome Australian journalists meddling in otherwise positive bilateral relations between Indonesia and Australia. This has been a consistent argument by politicians from both countries for more than 40 years. As is well known, the deaths and subsequent cover-up of the “Balibo Five,” the Australian journalists killed in East Timor in 1975, was a key, contested narrative generating distrust and mutual disdain between the media and both governments.

It led many government officials in Australia to argue that the Australian media was actively hindering the Australia-Indonesia relationship. In 2004, a report by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade titled “Near Neighbors – Good Neighbors: An Enquiry into Australia’s Relationship with Indonesia” concluded: “The committee considers that the medium with the most power to enhance mutual understanding both immediately and in the long term is the broadcasting media.” The report added that “much hard work can be undone quickly by careless reporting.”

This was not just an attack on the sensationalist tabloid press. The study quoted both Australian and Indonesian political leaders who claimed the portrayal of events by the national broadsheet newspapers and mainstream television media (and the ABC in particular) was “one of the concerns about the bilateral relationship.” The report led the former Indonesian ambassador to Australia, Wiryono Sastrohandoyo, to suggest that “misperceptions and misunderstandings are hindering the full flowering of the bilateral relationship,” due largely to “the [Australian] mass media that mitigate against closer ties, no matter how closely the two governments may be working together.”

Along with politicians, academics have also accused the Australian news media of creating misperceptions in their portrayal of Indonesia. Senior scholars of Australia-Indonesia relations have made the point of stressing the importance of the media. Australian academics have continued this argument, claiming that the media, not government policy, has played a significant role in shaping public opinion. Many scholars writing about the Australian news media in Asia saw this problem as unique to Australian reporting of Indonesia. One of the most compelling cases for this argument was the Schapelle Corby courtroom dramas and the general movement in Australia to “Free Schapelle” from the unfairness of the Indonesian justice system and the apparent miserable conditions of a Bali prison.

John Schwartz, in his analysis of the media’s coverage of the event, wrote in Metro Magazine in 2005: “The lesson to be learned from the media coverage of the Schapelle Corby case is that commercial media outlets play a very active role in setting agendas, shaping public opinion and encouraging strong reactions. The public outrage which came after the guilty verdict was announced, including the incident at the Indonesian Embassy and the attacks on Indonesia’s legal system, has in the short term at least, worked to sour Australia's diplomatic relations with Indonesia.”

The story contributed to Indonesia being the country that received the most coverage on Australian television in 2005, as 18.42 percent of all foreign news reports were about the country. A total of 1.7 million viewers tuned to the live coverage of the verdict on the Nine and Seven television networks. The commercial media’s fascination with the Corby case encouraged the public outrage that came after the guilty verdict was announced, including protests at the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra and public denouncements of Indonesia’s legal system, which soured Australia's diplomatic relations with Jakarta. 

In the case of the Corby trial, the attention it received at home highlighted the ability of the commercial media to employ “parachute” journalists who operated under strict instructions from editors to play an active role in setting agendas, rather than the resident Jakarta correspondents. This was to the detriment of resident correspondents who believe the Corby story was sensationalized. For example, The Australian’s Stephen Fitzpatrick argued that there were problems with journalists from Australia parachuting in and reporting in Denpasar. “Reporters pitching up at Denpasar local court can be a problem because it is physically so easy to do, just a few hours’ flight, and you’ve been court reporting for the past five years in Sydney, except the rules have all changed and if you don’t know that everything is slightly different, you will get it all wrong,” he said. “That happens regularly. Court reporting here is just so different to court reporting in Australia.”

The majority of reporting about the Corby trial was a detriment to Australian journalists’ integrity, professionalism, objectivity and truth as they reported from Indonesia. The Corby trial also showed how Australian media organizations were willing to parachute journalists in who did not have prior knowledge of Indonesia. This comes as a result of changes in technology, and in travel and editorial pressures, which have led to more Australian journalists flying directly into Indonesia when a major story breaks. But increasing the number of reporters does not mean the reporting of an event becomes more accurate. In fact, when there is an increase in competition for headlines and audience attention, reporting usually becomes more sensationalist. Parachute journalism has become a popular way of covering Indonesia and is increasingly framed around domestic audience preferences or preconceived attitudes. The importance of fast, immediate news from Indonesia has meant the power lies more at the hands of editors shaping rolling news stories and the parachute journalists, rather than the usually more well-informed resident correspondents.

Indonesia and Tony Abbott

In August 2012, the Australia Network, Radio Australia and the ABC’s digital arm, Australia Plus, became integrated to become ABC International. An internal “ABC International Indonesia Review” report in October 2012 stated that Australia “has a lack of brand recognition in Indonesia,” and that not enough was being done to make people “turn their heads.” It explicitly mentioned “how we do news” as an important avenue for Australia’s soft diplomacy mission. Its key recommendation was that connections be fostered with large media organizations in Indonesia, and that resultant “partnerships should reflect our international objectives: develop a robust, diverse and public interest-driven media that promote the exchange of ideas (between Indonesians and Australians).”

“Content sharing” is a rapid and transformative development of 21st century digital media. The Indonesian mainstream media landscape has become a place of increasing conglomeration and platform convergence. ABC International formed impressive and unique partnerships with Indonesian media companies, including, Kompas Gramedia, Republika Online and others. ABC International provided these companies copy that had been translated into Indonesian at no cost, in the hope that more Australian news would enter the Indonesian media sphere. However, the results of these partnerships did not please the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, leading to further discussions surrounding the role of the media in hindering Australia-Indonesia relations.

Spies, boats and the Australia Network

On Nov. 17, 2013 The Guardian Australia and the ABC’s “7:30 Report” broke the news that Australia had been caught tapping the phones of President Yudhoyono, his wife and of other high-level Indonesian government officials. The story made headlines that led news coverage in both Australia and Indonesia. As the story initially broke through the ABC, its international arm was able to provide details in the Indonesian language, which were published online by Indonesian media.

This infuriated many Australian government officials, who believed that ABC International was exacerbating the situation. Abbott said during an interview with Sydney radio station 2GB on Jan. 29, 2014, that the ABC “seemed to delight in broadcasting allegations by a traitor,” referring to American whistleblower Edward Snowden. He added, “The ABC didn’t just report what he said, they took the lead in advertising what he said.” A few months earlier, after the scandal broke, The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, wrote, “The ABC emerges from the Indonesian spy scandal … morally compromised and journalistically discredited.” Others explicitly pointed to the role of ABC’s international arm in the situation. In an opinion piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, Gerard Henderson wrote that the story’s “broadcast on the ABC's Australia Network gave an unwarranted authenticity to the story in the Asia-Pacific region, where it is not always recognized that governments do not run government-funded organizations.” Criticizing the ABC for claiming to be pursuing Australia’s interest in the Asia-Pacific while publishing information that is embarrassing for the Australian government, Henderson declared: “You can’t have it both ways.”

As a result of the spying scandal, Australia was depicted as a “spying kangaroo” on the front pages of some newspapers in Indonesia, where the story led many of its television news programs. There were small protests outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta; some cultural programs in Indonesia were downgraded in scale; some defense ties were severed; and, in a very public display of frustration, President Yudhoyono recalled the Indonesian ambassador to Australia back home to Jakarta.

In January 2014, the ABC reported claims (accompanied by photographs) that asylum seekers attempting to come to Australia by boat had their hands burned by Australian Navy personnel. The claims, which were emphatically denied by the head of the Navy, were also broadcast to the Asia–Pacific region on the ABC’s Australia Network service and then made their way into local reporting in the Indonesian news media. During the “burned hands” saga, Abbott said that it “dismays Australians” when the ABC as the “national broadcaster appears to take everybody’s side but our own.” Immigration Minister Scott Morrison described ABC’s coverage of the incident as the “sledging” of Australian Navy personnel, which should not be tolerated. In response, the ABC partly backed down, with its managing director, Mark Scott, publishing a statement on Feb. 4 that expressed “regret if our reporting led anyone to mistakenly assume that the ABC supported the asylum seekers’ claims.”

The reporting of this incident and its diplomatic fallout occurred at a time when government officials were becoming more vociferous in their threats of cuts to ABC funding. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had claimed that the Australia Network was not fulfilling its role in the Australian government’s foreign policy objectives as a “tool of public diplomacy” and in “meeting the goal of promoting Australia’s interests overseas.” In a speech to Chatham House in London in early March, Bishop shed light on the reasoning behind her concerns: “My question is whether or not there is an inherent conflict in having the ABC contracted to deliver Australian government messages into the region. We’ve had conflict writ large when it comes to the issue of asylum seekers and the issue of the Snowden allegations. The ABC is a news organization and perfectly entitled to report how it wishes into the region on those two contentious issues. But under a soft power diplomacy contract, it’s meant to be delivering a positive image of Australia into the region.”

In the lead-up to the 2014 budget, a government-funded Commission of Audit report recommended that funding for the Australia Network be ceased, which was accepted. Australia Network’s $223 million budget (over 10 years) was cut. At the time, it was broadcasting in 46 different countries. In response, ABC International’s chief executive officer, Lynley Marshall, declared that the cuts “could not be justified on performance alone,” citing the important partnerships with media companies in Indonesia and China. Those advocating for an independent news service that represented Australia’s interest in the Asia-Pacific by promoting its brand of fearless, independent news were ultimately left disappointed. Content-sharing arrangements still continue between Australia Plus, the ABC and Indonesian counterparts, but the fallout from the spying scandal and the “burned hands” story meant expanding on existing arrangements was not encouraged with vigor by the ABC or the Australian government.

The death penalty

Just when it seemed that Indonesia-Australia relations could not get any lower, Indonesia in January 2015 began executing the first of 64 death row drug convicts, all but a handful of them foreigners. The second round of executions, carried out last April, included two Australians, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. Indonesia’s media is largely very free, and since the country’s transition to democracy began in 1999, journalists have been able to comment on and criticize government policies. Yet there were very few newsrooms critical of President Joko’s new hard-line approach to drug trafficking, which was executing condemned drug convicts en masse. There was also only mild interest in uncovering stories of the individuals due to be executed, including the Indonesian nationals among them.

While Australia’s media saw the looming executions as a major news story, Indonesian media organizations generally ranked the story well down on their list of priorities or took the angle that it was an issue of “national sovereignty.” While some reports provided information about the individuals on death row, there was little investigation of the effectiveness of the death penalty or whether the condemned had received fair trials. The dubious but much-quoted figure of Indonesia having 50 drug-related deaths each day (later reduced to 33) was largely unscrutinized. When I asked one Indonesian television reporter why there was not more discussion about the death penalty policy in the news, she responded, “We are just waiting to see whether Jokowi (Joko) can really commit to what he said.” Should he have halted the executions, much of the Indonesian media would have reported: “President backs down due to pressure from other countries.”

A select few Indonesian scholars, journalists and activists advanced other reasons for Indonesia to rethink its death penalty policy. Shouldn’t those who have reformed while on death row be granted clemency? Is there really a drug “emergency”? Even if there is, does executing drug mules solve the problem? These questions held little weight in the mainstream media in Indonesia. But media coverage, particularly content encouraging interaction via social media, is often based on what will raise emotions. The issue certainly gained traction among Indonesian news companies once foreign countries publicly opposed the executions. The big story was the hyper-nationalist posturing on both sides, and especially any incidents that supported the view that this was yet another Australia–Indonesia flashpoint.

Tony Abbott’s reminder of Australian disaster aid to Indonesia’s Aceh Province after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami played a key role in shifting the conversation away from the death penalty and led to a highly defensive response in Jakarta. His comments were considered emotive and unnecessary – a point made by everyone from university professors to ojek (motorcycle taxi) drivers who had never finished high school. Further fueled by the social media-driven “Coins for Australia” campaign, Indonesia’s media jumped on Abbott’s comments. There was even a collection box at the entrance to the press room in Indonesia’s Parliament building. Local media reported that a protest outside the Indonesian consulate in Sydney had “terrorized” its occupants, and asked experts whether Indonesians in Australia were safe. Many Indonesians began defining the campaign against the death penalty as “the Australian position,” rather than more accurately attributing it to the United Nations and many countries around the world that abhor capital punishment.

Conversely, in the Australian media, the story largely revolved around the circumstances of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, their lives in the prison system, their stories of reform and what they and their families were going through. Few Australians would have been left unsure about the transformation these two individuals had undergone. (One documentary was titled “The Painter and the Pastor.”) In Indonesia, meanwhile, Chan and Sukumaran were often described as “kingpins,” “masterminds” and “ringleaders.” As Schapelle Corby and other stories showed, in the contemporary news media, events are subject to instantaneous, rolling coverage.

If Western journalism is supposed to be the “who, what, when, where, why,” the salient feature of the coverage of Chan and Sukumaran’s executions was “when.” When are they on the list for execution? When would they be transferred from Bali? When would they be given 72 hours’ notice? When were they likely to be shot? Others on death row in Indonesia, in particular African nationals, rarely had their story told. Was this another form of nationalist posturing through the media, with only Australian lives seeming to matter? In the eyes of many Indonesians, yes. But while many commented that the Australian media was reporting only on Chan and Sukumaran, they also pointed out that the job of Australian journalists was to report for their domestic audience.

The executions left many Australians disappointed with the Indonesian government and unlikely to actively seek out information about the country’s culture and politics. Former President Yudhoyono was right when he told the Australian Parliament in 2010, “There are Australians who still see Indonesia as an authoritarian country or a military dictatorship, or as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, or even as an expansionist power.” The disagreement over the death penalty reinforced these stereotypes. Indonesia’s military-style transfer of Chan and Sukumaran to Nusakambangan, the prison island in southern Java where they met the firing squad, made a bad situation worse.

When it was revealed that a senior national police official posed for photos with the condemned during their final plane ride from their prison on Bali to Java it didn’t take long for racism and bigotry to spread online and via social media in Australia. The stereotypes will persist. In the executions controversy, content sharing through media partnerships had the potential to provide a greater diversity of viewpoints in the Indonesian media. However, the conundrum surrounding the role of the ABC as a Fourth Estate, or soft power source, into Indonesia meant these partnerships were not operating at optimal capacity, right at a time when they were needed most.


It is now clear that when the mainstream media covers the Australia-Indonesia relationship, it will most likely be framed around a flashpoint of contestation between the two countries. This is, of course, what makes “news.” As ABC correspondent Peter Lloyd wrote: “To be perfectly frank, journalists despise normality. Good is bad. Quiet is boring. Your up is our down. Generally speaking, the worse it is for you, the better for us. It makes for good copy.”

Yet the Australian and Indonesian governments seem reticent to acknowledge that this is, for the most part, how the media works. Rather, the government blames the media for producing negative stories, accusing them of hindering otherwise positive relations. In response, Australian government officials tend to continuously and overeagerly emphasize the “importance of Indonesia” and avoid sensitive issues. Indonesian government officials and pro-government commentators tend to emphasize Indonesia’s “sovereignty.” Both can be guilty of using these flashpoints to pander to domestic audiences, particularly around election time. 

The media will continue to frame the story as whether leaders are considered “friends,” and both will continually “take the temperature” of the relationship. This means stories will remain based on high-level meetings and whatever the “hot topic” is that particular week. Then the story will disappear, until another flashpoint occurs. This has been the trend in media reporting of Indonesia and Australia for more than 40 years, although the severity of these flashpoints has varied greatly. So how can this cycle of news production be changed? The answer is not simple, and it is not, despite what both governments have argued, found by hindering the media or expecting the media to perform a different role to the one outlined by Peter Lloyd. In hopes of shifting this view, here are three recommendations. 

First, don’t look at the media as the solution. Look at education. In Australia, the study of Indonesia’s national language, Bahasa Indonesia, has drastically declined. More Australians were learning Indonesian in the 1970s than they do today. For example, in 1996, there were 44,973 students in New South Wales public schools studying Indonesian. In 2011, there were only 6,029. Of those, only 87 were studying Indonesian in their final year of school. A report completed in 2012 by Australian academic David Hill showed that Indonesian language learning in Australian tertiary education was in crisis, with six universities closing their Indonesian programs between 2004 and 2009. If Australians are going to broaden their knowledge and understanding of Indonesia, it must come through schools and universities. Australia has a long history of producing “Indonesia experts,” and Australian scholarship on Indonesia is generally considered the best in the world. This is a huge asset to the relationship and must be expanded.

For its part, Indonesia should do more to promote Australian studies and politics in some of its degree programs. Most Indonesians who undertake tertiary education degrees in Australia do not study Australian subjects, while those who undertake theses at a master’s or doctoral level often research on Indonesian issues. Scholarships for Indonesians to study Australian politics and society would easily help here. Getting content on Australia within Indonesian schools will be more difficult, and tells us something about the nature of the Indonesia-Australia relationship.

Second, embrace content sharing. In recent years, there has been a rise in online platforms in Australia that have portrayed a broader set of opinions on both Australia and Indonesia. With funds provided by Asialink at the University of Melbourne, The Conversation has hired a Jakarta-based editor to encourage Indonesian academics to write for an Australian audience. English-language news outlets The Jakarta Post and Jakarta Globe also provide commentary on issues involving Australia and Indonesia. Nevertheless, media organizations could do more to source intelligent Indonesian commentators (there are many) who are adept at explaining Australian current affairs.

Many Indonesian and Australian scholars and doctoral students write regularly for online platforms such as Inside Indonesia, the Australian National University’s New Mandala and East Asia Forum, the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter and more recently, the University of Melbourne’s blog site Indonesia at Melbourne, among others. Media companies in both countries would do well to collaborate with these organizations to enable greater expertise on issues. They provide important expertise as well as counterarguments to views pushed in the mainstream media. Content sharing is the future for many news companies, and universities will need to be more active in this outreach space in the near future. The basis of these partnerships should be developing ideas and open and transparent discussion on a range of issues crucial to both countries.

Third, expand the scope of public broadcasting in the digital era. Due to financial reasons, Indonesia does not have a correspondent in Australia. All Australian foreign news bureaus are being reduced in the digital era. The Australian Financial Review no longer has a resident correspondent in Jakarta. The ABC and The Australian now use Jakarta as a “hub” for Southeast Asia coverage. Fairfax, which prints The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, is under significant financial stress and just how long it can afford to maintain a bureau in Jakarta is unclear.

This should be of considerable concern for those advocating for the Australian and Indonesian media to provide information from each other’s countries. It’s also crucial that the ABC and Australia Plus expand in the region. The Australian government’s decision to abandon the Australia Network’s programming comes at a time when other news organizations are expanding their role in Indonesia. CNN formed a partnership with Trans Corp Media in 2014 to create CNN Indonesia, while Bloomberg TV is in partnership with media conglomerate VisiNews Asia. BBC has a team of nine journalists and staff in Jakarta and a Bahasa Indonesia website, while Deutsche Welle also produces content in Indonesian. Other sites, such as The Huffington Post, are looking to open a bureau in Jakarta.

If there was a competition in soft diplomacy among international media companies, Australia would be behind in the race. Indonesia is less likely to expand its media operations to Australia, but partnerships and knowledge-sharing in media, communications infrastructure and other initiatives would be of considerable economic, social and political benefit in this, the digital era.


Ross Tapsell is an Indonesia specialist at the Australian National University in Canberra. He is the author of “By-Lines, Balibo, Bali Bombings: Australian Journalists in Indonesia,” which was published in 2014. 

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