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Indonesian Improvisation | The Nation

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Indonesian Improvisation

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Armed militias had forced most journalists to flee from East Timor by September 7, the day then-President B.J. Habibie and General Wiranto of Indonesia declared martial law for the region. But reports out of Dili were still airing on Radio 68H, a loose affiliation of radio stations throughout Indonesia. The reporter 68H had dispatched from Jakarta three weeks earlier had left on one of the last planes, but local "friends" were filing stories via the Internet. Their reports were being produced in Jakarta and distributed again on the Web to stations across the archipelago, from Aceh at the western tip of Sumatra to Kupang in West Timor.

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Suzanne Charlé
Suzanne Charlé is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, American...

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At the new studio on Utan Kayu Street in Jakarta, Santoso, the editor and coordinator of Radio 68H, stayed up most of the night working with reporters to prepare related stories (a student demonstration in Jakarta against martial law; an interview with the director of the Legal Aid Foundation examining the proposed law; the request of Amien Rais, a major political party leader, that the United Nations send peacekeeping forces) and getting ready for a trip to Ujung Pandang in Sulawesi, where Santoso hoped to drum up more interest in "Indonesia's NPR," as one journalist calls it.

Radio 68H has been an overnight success. The first program aired this past April 5. Today there are thirty-five stations that directly cooperate with 68H and another 111 in West Java that use news material broadcast to them by a powerful transmitter in Bandung. Listeners already number 25 million.

Stories on politics and the economy, along with interviews and editorials, are posted on the Radio 68H Web site (www.radio68h.or.id) three times a day, in time for member stations to broadcast them on the noon, evening and late-night news. While the audio versions are available exclusively to Radio 68H's radio partners, all Internet users have access to the text versions. Radio 68H is also compiling a sound library of important speeches in their entirety, both contemporary--such as a seventy-minute speech by Megawati Sukarnoputri, now vice president, about the killing and violence in Timor--and historical, such as Sukarno's independence speech in 1945, which has yet to be found. "Members can pick up whatever they want, item by item," explains Andreas Harsono, a journalist and secretary general of ISAI, the nonprofit foundation that started Radio 68H. He estimates that on average, member stations use 70 percent of each day's stories and, at politically charged moments, even more.

Radio 68H's success is due largely to the fact that it has no competitors: "Since independence was declared in '45, radio stations have never produced their own news reports," explains Harsono, now a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. "At first the reasons were financial. Then it became political. It was cheaper and politically advantageous--finally, required--to take the news from RRI"--the government-owned and -sponsored Radio Republik Indonesia, which sent out Suharto-sanctioned news fourteen times a day. "The setup was mutually beneficial to the government and the owners," he adds.

The groundwork for Radio 68H was laid in 1996, but the stations took off after Suharto's sudden fall last year. Santoso flew to Eastern Europe, where he met with journalists from B92, the independent Belgrade-based radio group that pioneered use of the Internet as a form of radio technology [see Veran Matic and Drazen Pantic, following page]. Harsono visited WBUR in Boston, where he learned about the workings of NPR and public-radio affiliates. In Jakarta, a BBC journalist gave in-house training to reporters on the oral language of radio. Just before the launch last spring, Pantic, then Internet coordinator at Radio B92, and another technician were sent from Belgrade to set up the software and run three-week training sessions for Indonesian technicians and journalists. "B92 was a very good model for Radio 68H," said Pantic, now at New York University. "Ours, after all, are parallel worlds, with racial and religious divides and military strongmen."

One of the beauties of distributing the news on the Internet (using MP3 files--usually used for music) is that no government license is necessary. This has been particularly important in Indonesia, where all media were under strict control of the government until the end of Suharto's reign in spring 1998. (Over the past year, more than 1,000 press licenses have been issued--more than in all thirty-two years of the Suharto regime. Licenses are still required for radio and TV.)

Radio has other advantages: It is significantly cheaper to produce than either print or television. The entire Radio 68H budget was less than $250,000 for the first year, provided by the Asia Foundation and the Media Development Loan Foundation. Another fact not lost on journalists at Radio 68H: Most families in Indonesia are not wealthy enough to buy a television set. Radios are much cheaper--and according to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the medium has the potential to reach 80 percent of the population. Speed is another asset. The archipelago is so large, and some regions so remote, that in many places newspapers arrive a week late, if at all. And many people cannot read. Radio news distributed by the Internet can be almost immediate. (Pantic recalls one day when he was sitting in Jakarta and he got news of the Serbia/Kosovo war off the B92 Web site: "I translated it and put it out on Radio 68H," he recalls. "Indonesia knew what was happening before the rest of the world.")

Perhaps the most important feature of 68H is that local stations produce their own shows and send them, via the Web, to Jakarta, where they are edited and distributed, via the Web, to other member stations. Among the best and most enthusiastic producers are the three stations in Aceh, where military atrocities against civilians have spawned a large refugee population and an active separatist movement. "They want to get the news out," Santoso says, "and we don't have to spend the money to send a reporter up there."

Santoso and others expect the member stations to grow in number as well as in popularity. In addition to straight news reports, the station is now sending out interviews of prominent politicians, businessmen and academics. A current-events segment with advertisers is scheduled for this fall. One recent addition is Wimar Witoelar, a popular television host and newspaper columnist--"Indonesia's Larry King," Harsono says with a laugh. "We're hoping he gets King's ratings."

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