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Indonesia's green information gap

Published on 12 November 2017 Indonesia
How the Indonesian media toes the line between the need for economic development and environmental sustainability.

With temperatures and sea levels rising alarmingly, putting 2,000 of the country's islands and 42 million households at risk of drowning by 2050, one would expect environmental news to top the agenda in Indonesia.

But when you look at mainstream media there, it is hard to find stories that go beyond catastrophes like forest fires or mudslides, examining who and what is behind them.

In 2015, huge fires swept through Indonesia's rainforests. About 2.6 million hectares of forest (an area roughly the size of Rwanda) was set aflame to clear space for palm oil plantations. The fires produced - in just three weeks - more greenhouse gases than Germany does in an entire year.

Forest fires have become an annual occurrence in Indonesia, and still, the country's media seldom devote the column inches and airtime needed to explore the causes behind them.

"It is easier for journalists to cover sports or the economy, because they have scores and numbers," explains Harry Surjadi, head of the Indonesian Society of Environmental Journalists. "Those stories are much easier to write than environmental stories, where journalists have to understand biology, ecology, waste and chemistry."

When they do cover forest fires or the effects of mining, they leave out "subjects like 'water poisoned due to toxic waste or air pollution' because they don't know enough about those subjects", points out Merah Ismail, campaign manager for JATAM NGO, a mining advocacy network.

Crucial to how Indonesia's news outlets cover the environment - and its destruction - is the shape of the media landscape.

Most of the country's TV channels and radio stations are owned by conglomerates, many of which have big stakes in agribusiness and mining companies.

"Media owners are often connected to owners of extractive industry companies, like mining or palm oil, which are among the greatest contributors to deforestation, environmental damage, and air pollution," says Sapariah Saturi, senior editor for Mongabay-Indonesia. 

In September 2015, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced that the country would cut the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 29 percent in 2030. The announcement was covered across Indonesia's news outlets, but, since then, there's been little follow up on what progress there has been or whether there is a plan at all to achieve this target.

What little media debate and coverage there are, of efforts to protect Indonesia's rainforests, are often framed in terms of a stark choice - between the economy and the environment.

"I have learned that only when the media care and do good reporting on the environment can there be any influence on policy to protect it," says Surjadi. "So, unless there are more journalists writing about green issues, climate change will not be stopped."

With the lines between journalism and activism blurred, we look at how the Indonesian media toes the line between the need for economic development and environmental sustainability.

Source: Aljazeera | 12 November 2017