Bonnibel Rambatan talks to Evi Mariani, Project Multatuli’s co-founder, about what media freedom means and what the ideals of public journalism are, and how we can keep up a good fight despite the increasing threats to our freedom of expression in Southeast Asia.
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In this episode, Bonnibel Rambatan talks with Evi Mariani, one of the co-founders of Project Multatuli, a collective initiative dedicated to carrying out the ideals of public journalism by giving a voice to the voiceless, spotlighting the marginalised, and reporting on the underreported, whose work involves collaboration with other news organisations, research bodies, and civil society groups that strive for democracy, human rights, social justice, environmental sustainability, and equal rights for all. Evi Mariani has won the 2020 Public Service Journalism Award from the Society of Publishers in Asia and the 2020 Tasrif Award from the AJI, the Indonesian Alliance of Independent Journalists.
In this interview, Bonni and Evi talks about what media freedom means and what the ideals of public journalism are, and how we can keep up a good fight despite the increasing threats to our freedom of expression in Southeast Asia.
Happy New Year! Welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that – hopefully in a better, stronger way this 2023.
One of the key pillars of democracy is media freedom. Citizens – and, arguably, non-citizens – must be able to freely criticise those in power and demand better of them for the sake of everyone. As established in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, media freedom, concurrently freedom of expression and information, is a universal human right.
Of course, fighting for media freedom isn’t just about us. Our struggle will need to involve the entire independent media landscape in Southeast Asia. We are strongest when we work together, so collective action and care must be at the heart of our community. Power and resources should be distributed rather than centralised, and exercised collectively rather than top down.
That is the background of New Naratif’s Media Freedom Network. The Network was launched on Human Rights Day last year, on December 10th 2022, which is also the day that we recorded this podcast. Throughout 2023, you’ll be hearing a lot from us regarding media freedom and freedom of expression alongside this network. So look forward to that.
As this is a collective effort, in this episode we’re going to talk with one of the co-founders of Project Multatuli. If you’re listening to this from Indonesia, chances are you’ve heard of this organisation. Essentially, Project Multatuli is – and we quote – “a collective initiative dedicated to carrying out the ideals of public journalism by giving a voice to the voiceless, spotlighting the marginalized, and reporting on the underreported,” whose work “involves collaboration with other news organizations, research bodies, and civil society groups that strive for democracy, human rights, social justice, environmental sustainability, and equal rights for all.”
My name is Evi Mariani, I’m a journalist, been a journalist for 20 years, I guess, after I resigned from The Jakarta Post in 2021, I founded Project Multatuli with three other journalists.
That’s Evi Mariani, to whom we’ll be talking today. She has won the 2020 Public Service Journalism Award from the Society of Publishers in Asia and the 2020 Tasarif Award from AJI, the Indonesian Alliance of Independent Journalists.
We’re going to be discussing what media freedom means and what the ideals of public journalism are and how we can keep up a good fight despite the increasing threats to our freedom of expression in Southeast Asia. Also, bear in mind that this episode was recorded in December, so some of the specific details of what we discussed may have changed. That being said, the nature of the topic itself is something that we believe to be perennially important.
Media Industry in Indonesia
Okay, so we are recording this at International Human Rights Day on the 10 December 2022. There’s a large intersection between human rights and journalism, and that has to do a lot with media freedom and all of that.
Can you maybe tell us what your thoughts are on media freedom and its current condition in Indonesia?
You’re absolutely right. Journalism and universal Declaration of Human Rights of course closely linked not only because journalism hinges upon freedom of expression, which is basic human rights, and also freedom of the press, freedom to access information, also a role in reporting human rights violations, right?
This is why, even under democracy and the development of democracy, global democracy nowadays with the rising of populism and how populist leaders around the world rise to power and then use democracy to pursue their own interests, which sometimes, like undemocratic, usually among the first they silenced or they attacked is journalists or the media industry. In Indonesia, the world third largest democracy there is press freedom since 1998. But we’ve seen something that is sort of like the promise of democracy is somehow tainted or marked by attempts of those in power. And I said those in power, not just referring to one person or two persons, right?
But like this abstract, those in power, that not very abstract. That can be pinpointed to the executive power, legislative power and then the police, the military, of course, and the law enforcers, how they band together with rich people. Corporations, not all corporations are bad, obviously, but some of them are rent seekers that have political interest to keep accumulating their wealth, right? Some people call it like the oligarchs. I sometimes call them like politically wired tycoons. So together they consist of powerful force in Indonesia and this concept of power, they wage a battle against us.
And it’s asymmetrical, I think, because they have all the money, they have all the power. And media industry in Indonesia now a lot of the large groups and the large media outlets are now owned by politicians or by politicians come business people. And it’s not good for journalism, of course, because we cannot trust them not to interfere with the editorial process.
In 2024 there will be election. This year, we already can feel the tension and I think next year 2023 will be more tense. So that’s how, I think, Project Multatuli, when we, for journalists and several journalists, journalists who are volunteers, when we decided to “okay, let’s make this let’s call this Project Multatuli,” And what is Project Multatuli? This is a public service journalism initiative. It serves as sort of like a self criticism on journalism, on media practice in Indonesia because we see how a lot of newsrooms are controlled by the politically wired title.
The Business Models
So you co-founded Project Multatuli in the background of all these threats, of all of these conditions that you just explained. So can you talk a bit more about how it does so, how it strives to do so?
Maybe a bit more about the model, a bit more about your missions, about how you try to conduct things in the background of all of these increasing threats, political threats and everything else that you just mentioned.
The first biggest question for us is where should we get the money? Because obviously, when we try to disrupt the dominant practice, which was the business model, the dominant business model was either you get money from politically wired groups or you get money from big tech, not big tech, but you get crumbs from revenue of the digital ads. Right?
So those two dominant business models we see that has influenced how journalism, how editorial independence works, and we don’t want to adopt that. So big question. Of course, then where should we get the money? The first obvious that the lowest hanging fruit for us was grants, right? But we realise that grants, if we rely solely on grants, we won’t be sustainable. So we will have to seek for audience revenue from readers.
And like New Naratif, we adopt membership. And the second one is we also have this revenue basket called earned revenue. Earned revenue is anything we can sell. So what kind of service we can do as a group, we can sell and get some profit, and the profit goes back to public service journalism. I was thinking that, okay, we are a bunch of writers, journalists, photojournalists photographers, content creators, filmmakers.
We can make podcasts, we can make videos, we can do a lot and Project Multatuli. We, the founders, have a network of those skilled, highly skilled people across the archipelago, across Indonesia. So why not work and then sort of put a price? But the profit is not for someone to buy a helicopter or whatever, but the profit goes back to our own welfare. I mean, we, we are not we don’t want to be rich. We just want to to leave decently, right? So the profit will go back to paying all those who work with us decently. And if there’s still money left out, then again for public journalism. So that’s the question of money. But you also asked about, like, threats, right, I haven’t talked about the digital threats and so on. Right, that’s that’s very big right now, along with physical attacks, I mean, like the traditional way to threat journalists, physical attacks are still there. But now coupled with digital attacks.
Are there any specific things, specific actions that you do to protect your contributors, protect your freelancers and everything from all of these threats?
Yeah. So in Indonesia, we have Indonesian press law, which was the result maybe like sort of the direct result of reformation in 1998. It was passed in 1999. And it’s a good law in not perfect, but should be enough to protect journalists. The press law says that if anyone doesn’t like our news or opinion or wherever, they should go to the press council to mediate. So it protects us from getting slapped with criminal charges. Right.
But in practice, people still debating about whether this person is really a journalist or not. But for Project Multatuli, even though we are still trying to get verification from the Press Council, we have the press law to protect us. So our sources, news sources, our contributors or photojournalists or journalists is protected by the press law through us.
So if anything happens, like someone is not happy, you should complain to us, not to the writer. And in Indonesia, there is this system called that every media outlet has to have someone who’s called Penanggungjawab in English probably can be translated into Guarantor, those who guarantee that the protection for all the contributors, our Guarantor is Fahri Salam or Chief Editor.
So sometimes I joke that “okay, whatever we do, the one who goes to jail is Fahri Salam.” So that’s how we try to protect our writers. So everyone who writes for us should be protected by law, and we will vouch to the press council that they are journalists.
Luwu Timur & #PercumaLaporPolisi
Has there ever been any close calls or all of these threats that materialise or all of these risks that may be against the law? That’s more risky than others?
Yeah, last year. So in October 6, last year was a historical moment for us, something that we suspected, as DDos attack. Our website went down because we published a story on a police in action in a small town in Luwu Timur, a very masculine, metro culture town in South Sulawesi, in which a mother of three reported her suspicion that her children, all under ten, were perhaps, like she was suspicious that the children were perhaps raped by their own father.
So she reported that to the local children protection and women protection and then reported to the police and then both institutions says that she’s delusional. So it happened in 2019. But our Project Multatuli published her story two years after, in 2021 because she didn’t stop fighting. She continued her fight because she thought that it’s it’s not fair that she was called delusional and get the case dropped without being investigated properly. So she just wanted to be for her case to be investigated. So we reported the writer. He’s also, I think he writes for a lot of media outlets, including the New Naratif, I think.
So he’s based in Makassar, 12 hours from Luwu Timur, because we reported about police in action and we accompanied that story when we published it on the social media, we accompanied that story with #PercumaLaporPolisi, which loosely translated into there is no use in reporting to the police because they wouldn’t do anything for your case.
It exploded in a sense that a lot of Twitter users also Instagram, I think, felt the same way. Yeah, I have a story about police interaction too. When I reported my motorcycle was like stolen, for example, for three days, it became trending nationally on Twitter, a few hours after we published that story, our website went down.
The readers could not access that story. And then police tried to sort of clarify on their Instagram account. Like Luwu Timur have these public relations have this Instagram account saying that this story by Project Multatuli because we were only five months old, they didn’t know us. Like who’s Project Multatuli. I’ll just hoax them on their story. They screen captured our article and then put a hoax stamp on that and clarifying but mentioning the names, the full names of the mother and her ex husband.
And people went to the ex husband’s, social media doxing him and stuff like that. And of course the husband got mad, but they got mad at us, not at the police. Well, our article didn’t mention any names at all. So he reported his ex wife to the police for defamation and journalists close to not close in that way. Journalists in Makassar, who knows what’s going on in South Sulawesi? Police told Eko Rusdianto, our journalists there, that the lawyer almost also reported Eko to the police and then the journalists who met the lawyer outside the police South Sulawesi.
Police said that we have Press law and you cannot do that. So they just reported the wife, the mother, but the mother is our news source and the press law protect news sources. We had to prepare transportation to protect her. Also like a safe house because the witness protection in Indonesia has some sort of bureaucracy and it was an emergency.
Within days we have to remove her from the small town to other place. So we try to protect both our news source and also our journalists. But the pressure for the news source was actually more than the journalists. But the journalist also kind of like stressed out there. He almost got reported to the police and then when he told us, we said that we’ll support you, we’ll back you up. Any legal matters should come to us, not to you as individually.
Did it ever amount to anything? I mean, the charges or was everyone safe at the end?
I haven’t checked whether they dropped the case because there’s no follow up. But as long as the report is still there, the threat is still there, right? As long as they didn’t drop. So lately I haven’t checked the latest update about the report against the wife.
Collaboration with LBH Pers
So how do you manage to, because it sounds like a very complicated case. Also, did it take like a lot of public defense lawyers, did it take a lot of legal trainings for your contributors? And you mentioned a safe house there. Did you have collaborations with a lot of like organisations or stuff like that?
Yes, we do. We have we collaborate with civil society organisations for that. Like a donor. A donor also like help us in providing a safe house because it’s a lot of money, right. For legal. Since the beginning, we realised that our tagline is we serve the underreported when we hold power accountable. And apparently the one that carries more risk is not only hold power accountable, but also apparently surfing the underreported can pose risk for you because you serve the underreported, you’re effectively holding power accountable.
Actually, my observation, not only on Project Multatuli’s case, the old cases like Tempo, Magdalene, Konde, and other attacks against media outlets or journalists, you expose sexual abuse cases. That’s one of the highest risk reports. Not just exposing corruption, for example, but apparently when women speak up, women who are supposed to be victims in the eyes of those in power, when they speak up, it’s scary for people. So that’s carry a very high risk.
So realising that since the start, Project Multatuli cooperates with Legal Aid Institute, LBH Pers, for the press. So almost many of our articles have to go through a lawyer, especially the controversial ones, the one on Luwu Timur.
Also the lawyer read before publication to serve, like have legal advice on what to write and not what to write. We hold the editorial independence, but he could tell us like, okay, if this is the consequence and you have to be ready or wherever.
Yeah, and speaking of laws, there are a lot of ways that the government or those in power can actually sue journalists, right? For example, like the ITE law, right? How you can get sued for defamation, you could get sued for hate speech and all of these things. Aside from running through your lawyers, do you actually, I don’t know, like, push for the reformation of UU ITE or do other things or maybe what is your experience, maybe or relationship with all of these UU ITE and maybe some other laws out there?
Yeah, our closest brush was that case, last year’s case. That’s our closest brush with the law. And we fully realise that ITE law or whatever law can work against us because the interpretation, the decision or the judgment to say who’s right and who’s wrong sometimes, often are in the hands of those in power. Right. Like I said, this is asymmetrical battle.
So we fully realise that ITE law lurks even against journalists. And that’s happened in several journalists. I’m also a member of Independent Journalist Alliance or AJI. AJI has a record of encourage journalists to report whatever happened to them. Doxing threat of ITE law, having their handphone or camera snatched by police or military, some thugs, for example, so they have this page on their website to report.
So I realised because I know from people in AJI and also some of journalists establish this, what called KKJ, Komite Keselematan Jurnalis, which is committee for journalist safety. And also there is this NGO called SAFEnet, also deal with digital security and all they sometimes release reports. AJI also release reports. And of course, before we establish Project Multatuli, we realise the threat and ITE law, even though for journalists, like I said before, is protected by the press law.
In reality, that is not always like that. There is a case in which, like a journalist work for I won’t mention it, the media outlet work for one media outlet in Indonesia. And then the media outlet said, okay, he’s not exactly our journalist, so sort of wash their hands and just do whatever you want to him. He’s based in Kalimantan, so he was put in jail.
And there was this case also, my friends in AJI helped advocate this case in which the journalist in Aceh was reported to the police by some, I forgot, I think corporations or something, and the press council sent a recommendation to the police in Aceh saying that, yeah, this is a journalism product, so should be treated as journalists, should be mediated with us.
There was this sort of like a small footnote in the letter saying that but this media has not been verified by us, which should not be a factor because the press law says that if you’re an organisation having a legal entity certificate like you’re at a company or you’re a foundation or like Yayasan or Perkumpulan or Koperasi, you’re good. Supposed to be protected anyway.
So the police says that okay, we still will continue with the criminal case because this media hasn’t been verified by the press council. So in reality, yes, those in power can do anything, even like violating agreement or whatever, right. So we fully we are fully aware, always aware of that.
Basic Security & Solidarity
I see. Yes. It’s a really delicate dance, I guess, with the authorities and the press. What do you think of Permenkominfo? Because, again, maybe you mentioned DDoS earlier, but I think, of course, the government can maybe block it or force censor your website or your reports or stuff like that.
Have you ever received any, aside from the DDoS thing you mentioned, maybe any threats or any fears that maybe the website will be taken down by the government and stuff like that, or blocked?
Yeah, we haven’t registered ours because we consult our lawyer and he said, just wait and see for now, because journalism is still kind of like in negotiation. But yes, we were worried about that regulation in which we have to register. Otherwise we have a risk of getting shut down. Right. So that’s just one of many things that we see that we can get what you call it gets shot at globally. Maria Ressa, for example, in the Philippines, she has to face a criminal charge. Not on the journalism practice itself, right? On some kind of like not money laundering, I guess, investment, like finance, something like tax or whatever.
And there was this journalist. His name is Carlos Cordova, I think from Ecuador in Latin America. He got a charge. So his media outlet was shut closed, I think, and was charged. I think the same tax evasion or money laundering or some financial fraud or something. If those in power do not like you, they can just do anything. Sometimes we feel like, okay, whatever we do is probably useless and we sort of never know what will happen. Sometimes I’m thinking maybe I’m too paranoid.
Thinking like the latest controversial criminal code, for example. I call it like a siege against freedom of expression, including freedom of the press. And a lot of, what do you call it? Buzzers in Indonesian, but in English could be like trolls, online mobs, saying that don’t worry, if you don’t do anything bad, you’ll be fine, right? You’re just like lebay, you’re like overreacting or whatever. Maybe. Yes, maybe. And bad things won’t happen to us. But who knows? Who knows? We will never be 100% sure because the pasal karet, like the articles, like karet (rubber), can be stretched as long as wide as those who can stretch it as wide as possible.
If there are still there, then there is always this possibility threats lurks, right? So what we can do is for me is to just do all the basic security, safety that we can do, and we have to do so at least if something happens, I won’t call myself stupid. At least like stupid. Why didn’t you activate your two factor authentication, for example, things like that. And we try to follow all the law, like the labor law, the tax law, we pay tax, we follow, the labor law we paid also for because a lot of our workers are union members.
So of course, that’s like, number one, following labor law and even more than labor law. Two, just serve like secure so that we have like minimum chink in the armor as to say maybe, but also solidarity, I think. what happened last year was if we are just like a five month old media outlet with only, I think at the time, ten people in it, without support from readers and other media outlets and other journalists and civil organisations, we are not going to be here right now. You’re not going to talk to me as a Project Multatuli founder. I don’t know. I’ve probably already set up online shops somewhere. We’re not being a journalist anymore. Maybe if not for the solidarity support from the people. So that’s how we protect ourselves.
Building Regional Solidarity
Yeah, and it’s a great point actually, about solidarity. As you may know, recently actually just this morning, we just launched the Media Freedom Network in New Naratif, which aims to build this solidarity across everyone, whether they’re like freelance journalists or organisations. But everyone who cares about media freedom in Southeast Asia.
Then they can network and build this solidarity that you just mentioned to help one another out when cases like these happen. Because again, you mentioned some names earlier and this happens in a lot of parts, a lot of countries in Southeast Asia and of course, each country has their own equivalent of UU ITE, RKUHP, and all of these other things, right?
I guess my question is that we are already building this solidarity network, right? But concretely, what do you think are the most important steps in building this network? Do you feel it’s more important for trainings or digital security or the legal aspect, or just making the connections itself?
Obviously, all of these aspects can’t be separated from one another. But I was just wondering what your thoughts are in building a regional solidarity for media freedom.
All that you mentioned are important. Of course, at the very least, a network can make noise, right? Can make noise. And internationally still, if you have, you make enough noise, presumably the one who tank you will kind of, sort of probably embarrass or something. But of course we realise that it’s not always the case, right? Like I mean, Myanmar, for example. Like Russia, right? I mean, the world has already made noise. So skills to protect yourself and resources, where to get resources to help you. Because protecting yourself is expensive, right? It is expensive. So you will need resources.
There are donors, I think, which can help you protect yourself by buying more secure servers, for example. Buying or renting. Renting, maybe server renting a more secure server, for example, hiring a legal consultant if you don’t have one, right? So there are resources, donors, or if not donors, then why not ourselves? Like pitching some money if there’s someone who’s like legal resources or something. Even though none of us are rich. Yeah, all the welfare dealing served by those 1% of people. But we probably have some money to spare, right? So resources is important, solidarity, a place to hide, or at the very least, like I’d say, make some noise, right?
Together. So what what was when we thought, like, first, like Project Multatuli, we thought like, okay, we are a small one, and even one police officer who was a celebrity on Twitter, Indonesian police officer, once said that, oh, it’s just like Fahri Salam’s personal blog, right? Don’t mind, though, we realised that. So we try to join as many associations as possible. We are a member of International Press Institute, for example. Like, two or three of us are members of AJI, a member of the union Sindikasi. So if anything happened, a lot of our networks will make noise together. So I think that’s already quite significant.
What Can We Do?
So for people who are listening to this, who aren’t active in the journalism, in public journalism, or they’re not journalists and stuff like that, what do you suggest them to do? I mean, again, you mentioned about donations, you mentioned about other things like that, but can you maybe give us a bit more on that?
For non journalists, for readers, for listeners who are passionate about media freedom, but they want to help, but they don’t actively work here. They’re not part of any association or organisations.
Support independent media outlets like Project Multatuli or New Naratif, obviously. In Southeast Asia we have frontier Myanmar, for example. In Myanmar. That’s only one. I think in Malaysia you have Malaysiakini, you have this newsletter, I think, called Behind Lines or something. Support them and not just read them. At the very least, share their stories, even subscribe or become members.
That’s I think the very least non journalists can do. Right now. Project Multatuli has accumulated number of about 1,400 members. We still need a lot more, obviously, but we are always grateful to those people who are even pay only IDR60,000 for three months membership, which is equal to probably three cups of Americano, for example, or latte.
So, yeah, maybe that’s the very least you can do. But for yourself, I mean, for your not for supporting journalists, maybe join an organisation, whatever organisation, because northern journalists, I think if you’re concerned about democracy, you’re organising yourself, like, joining an organisation I think will be very useful.
Let’s End This Older Generation
Okay, thank you. I guess. One last question, right? What’s your outlook for the future of media freedom in Southeast Asia? Obviously, we can go in a very bad direction if nothing happens, right? But what are your hopes if people continue to support independent media, if they mobilise into organisations? Can you tell us more about your hopes for the future of media freedom in Southeast Asia?
Yeah, I’m always struggling to to answer this kind of question because as a journalist, you’re trained to be skeptical. Right? But I’m trying to be more optimistic because now I’m more an entrepreneur than a journalist. So entrepreneurs should have a positive outlook, they say. I see that in Project Multatuli case, which is a reason for our optimism, is like, I am among 15 staff. I’m the oldest, which means it’s the one that moves Project Multatuli are younger, younger people, and more than 70% of our readers are young people as well.
And my generation Gen X, not to mention Boomer, Oh, my God boomers, so let’s not talk about them, probably sometimes we have to talk about them because the decision makers are Boomers and Gen X. So as an older person, you can say that some people call me Tante, the younger people are more active in trying to change the world because I think they are born into and they grew up in a situation in which capitalism environmental problems is already, like, getting worse and worse. For example, inequality is not something leftist people talk about. No. Those who are like capitalists, they also already talk about how inequality were since and it’s worrying, like the World Bank already, like, since ten years ago probably already talked about this.
Economists winning Nobel Prize already talk about inequality. So it’s real. It’s real. Well, even the capitalists themselves, the neoliberals themselves, already talk about it and worry about it. Because that I think young people are now more active in trying to make. Something to do better, not just my generation. Is, I think is, if you sometimes heard about, like how before you reach 30 years old, you should have this, you have, like, a measure of success. It’s this and that.
I think that’s the dreams of Boomer and Gen X, I think some young people, I think, adopted that kind of dreams as well. But some, which I hope a lot, some, I think shape, create their own dreams. And that’s for the better, I think. And as someone again, as someone who’s older, I think we need to embrace the ideas of these young people. Let’s end this older generation. How we think about stuff, how we think about that life should be fulfilled. If you already have a house, already have a car, have two children, for example, get married, that’s very old concept already. So the world has to change into something better.
And I’m very happy to say that Project Multatuli is more driven by young people, and the readers are also younger. So that’s a cause for optimism for me.
And that wraps up our discussion with Evi Mariani. Journalists and activists like Evie, as well as organisations like Project Multatuli, will be a crucial part of our struggle to build a better, freer and more equitable media landscape in Southeast Asia.
So if you haven’t done so already, we really urge you to check out their work at projectmultatuli.org. That’s projectmultatuli.org. If you like what they do, please also consider becoming a member of theirs as well. We know what it’s like to run an independent media organisation, and membership purchases help immensely.
And if you’re anyway involved or have aspirations in the independent media landscape in Southeast Asia, check out our Media Freedom Project, visit newnaratif.com/mediafreedom to learn more on how you can get access to various legal briefings, security training, organising for collective action, and a lot more. That’s newnaratif.com/mediafreedom, all one word.
My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches, brought to you by New Naratif and produced by Dania Joedo. I’ll see you around.