Feeding the Media: The Indonesia Way

One of the hardest things for journalists is to pitch a story that does not fit into the ‘’breaking news’’ slot.  And this is not just the case in India. When it comes to health or any other development-related issue for that matter, fighting for news space is quite hard.

Take maternal mortality or poor health infrastructure in villages for instance. Huge concerns in India. Reports on these tend to get buried unless there is a shocking peg, like a pregnant woman dying on the streets because no hospital would admit her. And if this was to clash with, say the Indian cricket team’s return after some huge win, well forget about it.

How does one get around this? Here in Indonesia, the BkkbN, the government’s National Population and Family Planning Board, that has played a seminal role in curbing the country’s population growth, has a partnership with the local media. This, they say, has helped in two ways. One, the media has helped spread information about its various services to the provinces. Two, it gets feedback on what’s going wrong.  I can see a few eyebrows being raised here.  The media after all is meant to take on the government, question it, although one could perhaps do with more of that, at least in India.

Across many provinces, the BkkbN has set up the Family Planning Journalists Association, made up of local reporters who are given training in population and FP issues. Orientations help familiarize them with the various contraceptive methods and services provided by the state. The groups change every 4 years, and what’s important to note is that they are not on the BkkbN’s payroll.

‘’The media have played a big role in the FP program’s success,’’ says Siti Fatonah, Head, BkkbN West Java. West Java is one of the biggest provinces, its population contributing to 20% of Indonesia’s total. ‘’Putting the right kind of image forward was difficult for us. The media has helped. We get to know about field workers demanding payment for free services,” adds Fatonah.

But how free and frank is this partnership really, one can’t help but wonder.

‘’They do not interfere. They never stop us from writing negative stories. We often report on things that are going wrong,’’ says Sulhan Syafe, who heads the West Java FPJA.   What attracted him towards taking up the position?  ‘’After Suharto stepped down and democracy came to Indonesia, the media could write what it wanted.  But no one cared about FP related issues. I do this because I know journalists lack information and perspective about our FP program.  I have seen how farmers with 6-7 children struggle to feed their families and this issue is critical for Indonesia,’’ says Syalfe.

The government support, however, does not ensure that FP issues always get played up.  ‘’I have to fight, beg and plead with my editor to carry stories.  They are always willing to give space to politics and to stories about Lady Gaga’s concert being called off,’’ says Elly Burhaini Faizal, Correspondent with The Jakarta Post.

BkkbN credits its FP program’s success, to a large extent, to its partnership with the media. Something it needs to build on given the tremendous challenges that still lie ahead. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, and there is poor health infrastructure in the remote provinces.  One suggestion is that the government should perhaps widen its media partnership to include senior editors!

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