Michael: "The fellow students I worked with – most of them Australian – became great friends over the six-week period."
I arrived in Indonesia at midnight in the midst of catastrophic floods that had inundated most of Jakarta. Naturally, this made transport from the airport virtually impossible for several hours, with huge crowds of people stranded. However, I eventually managed to find a bus to my hotel where the rest of the ACICIS Students were staying.
The next day I would commence my two weeks of language training and practicum seminars at Atma Jaya University before being sent to The Jakarta Post for the remaining four weeks.
Before I was selected by the Asia New Zealand Foundation to take part in the ACICIS Journalism Professional Practicum in Jakarta, what I knew about Indonesia had been entirely limited to topics I’d covered during university: West Papua, East Timor, the Balibo Five.
Naturally, I’d developed a perception of the country as a place of stern authoritarianism and wanton human rights violations. However, as soon as I emerged at Soekarno–Hatta International Airport at 1am amid the floods in early January, I was immediately struck by the kindness and openness of the locals.
Despite the stressfulness of the situation, people were helpful and warm. After waiting for several hours, a few of us managed to jump on a full bus heading into Gambir. It took another two hours for the bus to make it into the city, and those of us in the back row all fell asleep, exhausted yet comfortable – complete strangers, our heads on each other’s shoulders.
A complex nation revealed
The academic studies at Atma Jaya University were comprehensive and well-conveyed through interesting and reputable guest speakers and the Bahasa language courses were impeccably taught by the most talented and colourful Indonesian teachers.
Indonesian politics dominates everything. While I had some idea about how the system works, in the ACICIS academic seminars – which we received daily during the first two weeks – I came to know just how complex the political structures and interactions are in Indonesia, and how greatly they influence every aspect of life.
We learned about the power and influence of Islam and the military, the fraught foreign relations with Australia, the cult of personality surrounding President Joko Widodo and the critical issue of media freedom, which is increasingly under threat in the Southeast Asian country.
I found the seminars to be tremendously informative. They provided real working context through expert academics and working journalists who had lived experience operating in the city.
The field trips we undertook were also enlightening. We were able to visit the headquarters of Metro TV, for instance, where we were able to observe the inner workings of one of the country’s largest media companies.
This provided valuable insight into the idea of media ownership in Indonesia. Metro TV, like other organisations, is owned by a private individual, and the company overtly displays its political allegiance and support of President Joko Widodo. This would be a considered a shocking and unacceptable case of media bias in New Zealand, but it is commonplace in Indonesia.
Learning Bahasa Indonesia a highlight
The Bahasa Indonesian language course – which we were taught daily during the first two weeks – was a highlight of the practicum. It was taught by a team of highly skilled and engaging local Indonesian women, who obviously were very familiar teaching foreigners.
The classes were exceptionally fun; designed and communicated in a way that made you excited to practice the language in the real world. Such was the efficacy of the class and homework, that within a few days many of us could hold a basic conversation.
Both the language classes and the seminars were of course preparing us for our working internships which were to come in the third week.
Michael with human rights activist Andreas Harsono
Working at the Jakarta Post
From the very first day, my time at The Jakarta Post was wonderful. I was assigned to the world desk where I was immediately put to work writing stories.
I was able to cover a range of topics, from the growing geothermal industry in Indonesia to the arrest of an American journalist on Borneo to the existence of wet markets in Jakarta – places where rare animals are prepared for purchase and consumption.
My manager was incredibly supportive and encouraging, and was very receptive of my ideas. I always had something to do.
My time in Jakarta was incredible experience and I gained a great deal of writing practice through it.
Of course, the most valuable part of the practicum was the people. The fellow students I worked with – most of them Australian – became great friends over the six-week period. We are still in contact on social media and often read each other’s journalism work, which, I am pleased to say, has only improved since the practicum. Likewise, I became close with many of the Indonesians I worked with and am still connected with them on social media.
I have now sampled what it is like to live and work in a Southeast Asian country. Not only will this experience guide me in my reporting on the region, but it has also opened up the doors to eventually working as a foreign correspondent – once the world is allowed to travel again.
Read some of Michael's Jakarta Post articles