Interning at Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) reminded me of family dinners at my Italian-Australian grandparents’ house in the late 90s: Cigarettes and instant coffee in the kitchen. Trophies, awards and decorative tissue box in the meeting rooms. And, everybody wanted to feed me. It was truly a dream-come-true for a wannabe foreign correspondence journalist like myself.

But, RRI is far more than just an example of sensational Indonesian hospitality. They’ve made a weighty contribution to Indonesian’s national identity. In many ways, they have mirrored the rapid social progression of their environment. However, the organisation’s legacy is still a huge part of their identity. It defines the spirit with which they approach each passing challenge. The placement taught me about Indonesian history, challenged my beliefs and changed the way I will work cross-culturally forever.

The legacy of building a nation

RRI’s legacy has been shaped and continues to be shaped, by Indonesia’s eventful modern history. Stained by a struggle for independence from colonialism, a period of authoritarian leadership and rapid reformation in recent years.

While in Indonesia, I learnt that half a millennia ago there was no such thing as Indonesia. Instead, there were 17 thousand islands populated by countless cultural and ethnic groups. I didn’t realise how recently Indonesia declared itself a sovereign nation.

Unifying such a diverse population was no small task. A perceived sense of national identity, despite cultural differences, was an important political tool to solidify the infant nation’s unity. Nobody recorded the original declaration of independence. But, 25 days later Sukarno re-stated it for RRI listeners. This was their first broadcast and the recording is the main feature in their lobby.  

These days, privately owned media is the norm. However, this was only given the chance to flourish free from bureaucratic choke-hold in the late 90s. For the first two decades after independence, the state controlled the radio frequencies across the archipelago. RRI and Television Republik Indonesia (TVRI) were the sole broadcasters. Media was seen by the government as a tool to build a nation. 

A fight for press freedom

Kabul Budiono has worked for in state-funded broadcasting since the late seventies. he has Performed numerous roles; from an announcer, to director of RRI.

I walked nervously into TVRI’s head office; it was far more modern than RRI’s. Mr Budiono wore thick-framed glasses, brightly coloured batik and a jovial grin throughout our entire meeting. It was easy to forget I was sitting across from the elected member of TVRI.

Impartiality has always been central to RRI’s official mandate. When Budiono began working for RRI In the late seventies, this was not put into practice.

One election year, the city was bursting at the seams with people and politics. Budiono was a young journalist working in Jakarta. He was forbidden from reporting criticisms of President Suharto and his political party Golkar.

While Suharto won the election, Golkar lost sorely in Papua. Budiono wanted to know why. He contacted academics and pieced together a story. That day, the 1pm state-funded broadcaster criticised a president for the first time in its 25-year history. The Ministry of Information was not impressed. But, “I am still here,” he told me with a satisfied smirk.

Perhaps this could have served as a canary in Suharto’s authoritarian gold-mine. After his regime fell during the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 90s, RRI made the official shift from state to public status. Officially, they now represented the citizens of Indonesia, not merely the President.

Impartial but not at every cost

RRI, as with the rest of the nation, has changed a lot since the 1998 reformation. They now operate in a starkly different political climate.

Since 2002, their independence has been protected by the KPI (Indonesian Broadcasting Commission). According to political scientist Douglas Ramage, “Indonesia has one of the freest media’s in all of South East Asia”.

Several of my colleagues at RRI told me they are free to say whatever they want.

They have a station dedicated to criticising the government (Pro3) and strive to present multiple sides of every argument.

Independence is important. But, so is their national image. Reporters I spoke to see foreign broadcast as an opportunity to showcase Indonesia as more than just the land of tsunamis, earthquakes and the Bali bombings.

On top of that, national security also impacts editorial decisions. Budiono said TVRI and RRI will always be on the same side as the Republic of Indonesia in these matters. “We’re not like the BBC in that way,” he said referencing the British broadcasters stance against the Thatcher government during the Iraq war. 

When I asked Budiono about RRI’s coverage of the pro-independence movement in West Papua he said, “we are free to have an open dialogue. But, if there is a weaponised movement trying to become free from Indonesia, we have to think about the sake of the nation.”

My reflections

RRI and TVRI are no longer governed by the state. However, they possess an entrenched state culture. This seemed fitting considering their crucial role in developing the national psyche. 

However, I’ve been taught to view Journalism as a figure operating primarily to hold those in power accountable; like a final puzzle-piece essential to a picture of a healthy democracy. The memory of my first-year lecturer howling “the fourth estate” in her thick Australian accent is etched in my memory. As a result, I found some of my experiences at RRI challenging. 

Most of the reporting I did was inside air-conditioned hotels and government buildings. I recognise the importance of authoritative sources. But, it seemed strange to spend a morning drinking tea and talking achievements with diplomats, government officials and academics.

But, of course, I didn’t come to Indonesia to have every one of my standing beliefs about Journalism affirmed. I don’t agree with the way RRI does every little thing. But, am I supposed to? Unlike many of the reporters at RRI, I’ve never lived through a period of civil unrest in my country.

Every day journalists at RRI walk a fine line between considering national interest and elevating individuals in their society. It is complex and messy and truly impressive. It requires an attention to social, historical and cultural nuance probably impossible for a foreign journalist.

Working at RRI was an invaluable experience that taught me the impact history and culture has on media. It is an experience I will take with me throughout the rest of my studies and beyond.

Lisa Grace Favazzo is a student living in Melbourne, Australia. This summer she took part in a journalism professional placement program run by the Australian Consortium for In-country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS). Her trip highlights include speaking (terrible) Bahasa Indonesia, eating onde-onde and interning with the countries public radio broadcaster; RRI.