Monday, July 03, 2017

Telum Talks to Andreas Harsono

Independent Journalist and Indonesia Researcher of Human Rights Watch

Andreas Harsono used to work for The Jakarta Post, Pantau (Jakarta), American Reporter, The Nation (Bangkok), and The Star (Kuala Lumpur). He previously published 'Agama' Saya Adalah Jurnalisme, an anthology on journalism, and co-edited Jurnalisme Sastrawi on narrative reporting, all in Bahasa Indonesia. Harsono previously received the Nieman Fellowship on Journalism from Harvard University.

Tell us a bit about your upcoming book, A Nation in Name: Ethnic and Religious Violence in Post-Suharto Indonesia.
It’s basically a review about racial and religious violence in Indonesia after authoritarian President Suharto had stepped down from power in 1998. His departure prompted various parties to get better positions in their respective interests, using religion, race, and separatism to mobilise power. Many parties use legal and democratic means. Unfortunately, many parties also tolerated violence in their political struggle. I estimated at least 90,000 people were killed in communal, sectarian and state violence between 1997 and 2005.

I travelled for six years, on and off, ranging from Aceh and Papua to the Madurese massacres in Kalimantan. I also covered East Timor’s independence and the sectarian violence in the Moluccas Islands. Sulawesi, with relatively less violence, is also covered in trying to understand these dynamics to find a new equilibrium in post-Suharto Indonesia. I guess these struggles are not over yet. We see how Islamist organisations still campaign for the so-called Sharia to be implemented in Indonesia. The anti-Ahok campaign is obviously a part of their ongoing campaign. I am now negotiating with a publisher in Australia. The title might be changed. I also need to reduce the length of my manuscript, now at 125,000 words.

Besides being an independent Journalist and Author, you currently also work as Researcher for Human Rights Watch. Please tell us about your role and duties.
Basically, I am doing research, interviews and writing for Human Rights Watch. I have some other colleagues who do research also on Indonesia including the specialists on LGBT rights, children rights and disability rights. We are focusing on a range of subjects, such as stopping the shackling (pasung) of mentally disabled people. We’re also trying to have the Indonesian government ban children working in tobacco farms because tobacco leaves do have nicotine and hazardous chemicals. We’re also concerned to see the rise of discriminatory regulations against religious and gender minorities in Indonesia, ranging from female genital mutilation to criminalising homosexuality.

What is the most recent human right issue you are working on now?
My current works are mostly related to religious freedom in Indonesia. You might know that Indonesia is seeing an increase of religious intolerance with many political Islam groups taking over public discourse, discriminating religious and gender minorities. Many government officials talk about the threat from the Islamic State terrorist group. Islamist groups are increasingly using huge rallies, sometimes also violence, to advocate the implementation of the Islamic Sharia in Indonesia.

It began when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono came to power in 2004 in which he passed discriminatory regulations i.e. strengthening the blasphemy law, replaced “religious freedom” with “religious harmony” principle, passed anti-Ahmadiyah decree, tolerated hundreds of women’s discriminations. In March 2006, Yudhoyono decreed a “religious harmony” regulation and set up government advisory bodies, skillfully named the Religious Harmony Forum, in every province and regency. The forum’s credo says, “The majority should protect the minorities and the minorities should respect the majority.” But it basically denies equal rights to Indonesian citizens. In many Muslim-majority areas, the credo allows Muslims to have effective veto power over the activities of religious minorities. More than 1,000 churches were closed down during the Yudhoyono decade.

What are the challenges you've faced as a Journalist?
The internet has changed a lot of our journalism. It’s not only terminating the gatekeeper role of traditional media but also squeezing the advertisement income among many news companies. We’re also seeing the rise of fake news. Social media is offering opportunities but also sensations. I am pretty troubled to see people who only care about the number of followers on one’s Twitter account. I know many substantial individuals with limited followers.

The challenge is always about substance. Sooner or later, citizens will look for substantial news reports. Human Rights Watch provided me with a platform to have substances. My works are usually based on long reporting, interviews, field works. I also have to answer a lot of questions from my editors and lawyers. I love long form writings. I guess it help to answer questions substantially.

What does a day in the life of Andreas Harsono look like?
It really depends on my location. I travelled quite a lot. I usually spend my early morning reading and answering email. I also do my writing mostly in the morning. Meetings and interviews take place during the day -- my research often makes me a source for Journalists. I return to my desk in the evening.

Would you like to share few words of wisdom to young Journalists?
I believe in quality journalism. The more quality a society has in its journalism, the more options it has to shape their public opinion, thus the society will be better informed to make their public decisions. The quality of our journalism relates directly to the quality of our society, our democracy.