Islamic magazine survives tough press competition
By Ati Nurbaiti
The following is part of a series of articles and interviews on the often fiery Islamic media, to be published in the next editions.
JAKARTA (JP): Maluku has been deadly ground for a year, and when a young reporter was given an assignment there, he must have thought that it might be his last.
Attempting to glean information among the Muslim community in Ambon, people pounced on him when they learned he was a reporter. Zairofi panicked and fled, but managed to fish out from his pocket a copy of the magazine where he worked at -- and he was saved.
The magazine which saved his life was Sabili. While all reporters come under suspicion in Maluku, which hampers the vital need for collecting reliable information, Sabili is at least trusted among the Muslim community there.
Its contents are controversial by the standard of mainstream media -- "Second Wave of Christianization" was one headline -- and its chief editor says the fact that the magazine "reports the truth without beating about the bush" is one reason why readers feel they "belong".
"We don't have a correspondent in Maluku," said chief editor M. Zainal Muttaqin. "But locals give us information which we can check on." Information is also further checked with non-Muslim leaders in Jakarta, he said. However provocative the contents of the magazine seems, he told The Jakarta Post that information has been cross-checked and the sources balanced.
Latest developments in Maluku led to headlines advocating a jihad -- "self-defense is an obligation," says Zainal, 35, and the oldest in the office of 13 reporters.
The small sized bi-weekly stands out among other newsmagazines, including Islamic-oriented media, in terms of its circulation of 80,000 copies. It has reached over 90,000 copies a number of times.
A year after the media industry boom here, prophecies of those in the know have come true: that media with similar products -- reformasi and politics -- cannot possibly last long. Many of the over 1,500 publications have died out, leaving the rest in fierce competition.
A recent survey by AC Nielsen survey company revealed that among magazines in nine cities, Sabili was in the top five, with the highest being Gadis, the teen publication with a readership of 399,000. Sabili and the women's magazine Femina each had a readership of 325,000, and the next highest read newsmagazine was Tempo, with a readership of 270,000.
Zainal cites a number of factors for the magazine's achievement: its 80 pages and small size means it is the cheapest newsmagazine at Rp 4,000, compared to others sold for at least Rp 8,000; packaging is attractive with glossy covers, uncluttered layout and a few of its photographs and graphics in color. The language and style used can also reach young readers, he says.
While the AC Nielsen study revealed most or 43 percent of Sabili's readership in the 25 to 34 age group, 39 percent are aged 15 to 24.
A large part of Sabili readers in AC Nielsen's survey earn a monthly revenue of Rp 500,000 to Rp 1.5 million.
But the main factor of its accomplishment, Zainal says, is that Sabili "is above all groups," meaning it strives to be mainly free of ties to any of the diverse Muslim factions in society.
The fairly large circulation reflects, he says, a thirst for a newsmagazine among Muslims which advocates Islam, not Islamic groupings. Look at the publications tied to Islamic organizations, which have circulations that do not reflect their claimed membership of millions, he added.
"When we started publishing in 1998, an investor came along and offered money on the condition that we become a mouthpiece of a certain group and we said no way." Zainal refused to give any names.
It turned out that Sabili is not really new. It dates back to 1988 when young students and graduates, mainly from the University of Indonesia, got together and set up a publication mainly on issues in the Muslim world, such as atrocities in Bosnia. Zainal, a former student of sociology and co-founder of the original and current Sabili, is happy that readership has broadened to the general public.
"The Islamic revival here of the 1980s was not responded to by most of the media," Zainal said. He said this was in part due to media ownership "which did not stand up for Islam". Owners and editors failed to recognize that the increasing Islamic awareness "went beyond clothing and rituals".
"It was a thirst for Islam in which one would feel peaceful."
The new, unlicensed magazine avoided internal politics -- "the situation then was not conducive" to such reporting.
Even then, Zainal said, circulation reached 60,000 and readership was limited to the campus and among professionals. Publication stopped in 1993 when staff got into trouble with authorities for reporting about a religious-related incident in East Java.
In June 1998, the magazine was published again with a capital of Rp 350 million. "This must be the first magazine with such a high circulation and so little capital," Zainal said. "Friends" pitched in, he said, and there are now 12 shareholders, the largest holding 20 percent.
"But we have editorial independence," he said.
Until now the trend in the Islamic media, to voice only the respective allegiances of groupings, can explain the low circulation among Islamic-oriented publications, he said.
While this has been to Sabili's comparative advantage, Zainal hopes for "100 or 200" similar publications. "We have a population of 200 million, so what's to fear?"
More publications are needed to balance "biased" reporting against Muslims, he says. "I watched BBC's coverage on Ambon and all the pictures were of burned churches, with the commentator saying that this was evidence of Muslim extremists."
He adds the magazine pays a monthly wage of Rp 1 million to new reporters -- similar to some other, larger print media companies -- plus a monthly bonus each time the publication makes a profit.
This is when sales turn out higher than the targeted circulation. "Then everyone can count his own bonus based on a transparent formula," Zainal said.
This method was modeled after the profit-sharing management of Padang restaurants. The chief editor says the idea came from their chief commissioner, Rahmat Ismail, who comes from West Sumatra where the Padang or Minangkabau ethnicity is based. Rahmat also manages the Forum Keadilan newsmagazine.
"A bonus can amount to half of a reporter's wage," Zainal said.
While the magazine must be managed professionally, he claims the main motive is not business but the advocacy of truth and justice, and speaking for the downtrodden. "If it was Christians who were abused we would also defend them," he said.
Regarding the burning of the Doulous Christian complex in East Jakarta last month, Sabili condemned the attack but Zainal adds, "We reported about residents' complaints on Doulous activities long before the incident."
With relatively fiery contents, do editors feel responsible for possibly inciting some of the forceful actions possibly involving Muslims recently? No, Zainal says, many readers are critical, debates are stimulated and even the harshest criticism against the chief editor gets printed.
Sabili is only one among readers' interests, he said, as reflected in AC Nielsen's survey. Most readers also read Pos Kota, Nova and Kompas.
The magazine's popularity appears to stem from its freedom of other media's burden -- the taboo against reports related to racial, ethnic and religious differences (SARA), which was off- limits to public discourse for over 30 years under the New Order.
"Our aim, in line with Islamic values, is that people can speak in freedom without fear about anything as long it is true," he said.
People are not used to this, which used to be reflected in readers' anger toward Sabili for its interviews with Christian figures. "But now readers are beginning to be able to accept differences," Zainal said. "It is natural to have differences, and we should not be angry toward each other for that."
"We are all for harmony, but not artificial harmony."
The magazine is popular "in areas where Islamic activities flourish," he said. Apart from Greater Jakarta, these areas are Bandung, Yogyakarta, Solo, Surabaya and Padang, West Sumatra.
The magazine, which can also be accessed at http://sabili.ku.org, also reaches readers abroad such as in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Australia, England and Japan.
A main advantage over other publications is also the choice of the day when the magazine hits the newsstands: Friday. After the mass Friday noon prayers, worshipers grab the magazine from vendors outside mosques. On Saturdays there are many Koran reading sessions where people can also buy the magazine, and on Sundays copies are picked up by participants of the many discussions and mass gatherings.
"The 'off-days' for other media are our 'on-days,'" Zainal said of the weekends.