More than 100 million Indonesians went to the polls in June, voting in their country’s first free elections since 1944.
Even though it took several weeks to count the ballots, it was soon clear that voters had rejected the ruling Golkar Party which had been led by President Suharto until his resignation amid civil unrest last year.
From a field of 48 parties, voters in the world’s largest Muslim nation favoured a secular party, the Indonesian Democracy Party-Struggle (PDIP), lead by a woman, Megawati Sukarnoputri.
“This election was quite different from the ones before,” said Indonesian-born Juni Tampi, who has worked at Radio Australia for the past 14 years.
“In past elections, you knew Golkar would be the winner, so there was nothing exciting. But this one was more interesting because everyone was looking forward to see who the winner would be.”
Tampi and her colleagues at Radio Australia marshaled their resources to do justice to the momentous events in Indonesia.
Less than two years after budget cuts at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) hit Radio Australia hard, the international broadcaster demonstrated its commitment to covering Asia and the Pacific – using new technology and new strategies.
Radio Australia sent three reporters to Indonesia, including Nuim Khaiyath, a 30-year broadcasting veteran and head of the station’s Indonesia service.
Also reporting for Radio Australia were three journalists representing the ABC.
Their job was not easy. No one knew whether violence might erupt before, during, or after the voting.
In East Timor, where pro-independence forces have battled militias backed by the Indonesian government since Indonesia invaded the territory 24 years ago, tensions were especially high. There were numerous reports of local journalists being beaten and intimidated by the militias.
The Australian broadcasters appear to have come through their assignments unscathed, and modern technology made their work easier than it would have been just a few years ago.
Correspondents carried MiniDisc recorders and laptop computers running Cool Edit software. They sent compressed MP3 audio files to Radio Australia headquarters in Melbourne through an Internet e-mail server in Indonesia.
Jean-Gabriel Manguy, manager of Radio Australia, said the audio quality was excellent. “In particular, the actuality sent back from Indonesia was wonderful. It was full of life, full of color.”
Getting reports from Indonesia was one thing, but getting information to listeners was quite another challenge.
The budget cuts of 1997 led to the closure of one of Radio Australia’s short-wave transmission sites, near Darwin in northern Australia.
“We were left with a short-wave audience in eastern Indonesia [including] Timor and Irian Jaya, but west of Bali our signal is very weak and not dependable,” Manguy said. “So we lost a huge audience.”
To address the loss of coverage in central and western Indonesia, Radio Australia made rebroadcasting arrangements with Indonesian stations.
“We now have nine stations,” said Manguy, “two in Sumatra, one in Sulawesi and six on Java who replay material in Bahasa Indonesia provided by Radio Australia.”
Unfortunately, rebroadcasts of pre-recorded programming can never be timely enough for something like election coverage, and Manguy has observed that most stations in Indonesia want only “non-threatening” programming, like education features, from Radio Australia.
An exception is Delta-FM in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Since mid-May, Delta has relayed Radio Australia news and current affairs, live via satellite, for 20 minutes daily.
“It’s a significant achievement in terms of regaining an audience for our news and current affairs,” Manguy said. Radio Australia provides the downlink equipment and the programming free of charge.
Radio Australia not only covered the election for short-wave and local relay listeners in Indonesia. Reports were also featured in its Asia-Pacific programme, which is broadcast daily to Asia via short-wave and satellite, and around Australia on the ABC’s Radio National network.
Manguy believes the future of Radio Australia lies in providing content – rather than as an operator of radio transmitters.
“We created a special Web site for the Indonesia elections,” he said.
“For the first time we tried to put as much of our radio content onto the Internet as possible. We approached it from an online perspective. Prior to the election, we had content about the parties and the process. We have rolling news in English and in Bahasa Indonesia.”
Using the Internet, Radio Australia was able to reach audiences in Europe and North America, including expatriate Indonesians eager to learn about events at home.
Manguy said producing news and current affairs for media other than radio has not been too difficult. “The correspondents send back pictures taken with a digital camera, so the web site includes audio, text, and pictures.”
Radio Australia has employed two online producers to keep the web site up to date.
“We are very pleased with the interest in the Indonesian elections site,” said Manguy. “We recorded 63,000 accesses over the two week period covering the poll and some very favorable comments.”
East Timor referendum
Covering the election, while important in itself, was also a warm-up for Radio Australia’s Indonesia service as it prepared for the long-awaited referendum on independence in East Timor.
The ballot, in August 1999, would ask East Timorese to choose between “special autonomy” within Indonesia and “separation from Indonesia.”
At the time of writing, Radio Australia was still to finalize its plans for covering the referendum.
Indeed, the timing of the UN-supervised vote was in doubt, given reports that some 40,000 East Timorese had been driven from their homes to prevent them registering to vote.
So far, Radio Australia has relied on reports from ABC correspondents in East Timor, but Manguy said it was possible Radio Australia would send its own people to the area to cover the referendum.
No matter what happens, he said, Radio Australia would use the World Wide Web to augment its coverage of events in East Timor.
“We will be looking at producing material to build a web site, looking at the referendum process and the main issues.”
* First published 1 September 1999 in the International Edition of Radio World