Mon, 08 Nov 1999

Media plays key role in RI-Australia diplomatic ties

This is the first of two articles based on remarks by former Indonesian ambassador to Australia S. Wiryono at a gathering organized by the Indonesia-Australia Business Council in Jakarta on Nov. 2, 1999.

JAKARTA (JP): My posting to Canberra in 1996 came as a complete surprise to me as I was about to finish my last few months of assignment in Paris. The news from Jakarta indicated that at least a dozen very prominent names were mentioned as candidates for the post vacated in May 1995 by Sabam Siagian, but that my name was not even mentioned.

Originally, the Indonesian government's choice for the Canberra post was Lt. Gen. Mantiri. The formal process of proposing his name and the agreement by the Australian government proceeded normally, but once the name was officially announced, there was a political uproar in Australia.

This rumpus originated from Australia's political left, the East Timor lobby, part of the Catholic Church, non-governmental organizations and the media who disapproved of certain comments allegedly attributed to Lt. Gen. Mantiri about the November 1991 incident or "massacre" at Santa Cruz, in Dili, East Timor as the Australian media would prefer to call it.

The Australian government was in an awkward position. It had formally given the agreement, but the political uproar in Australia made it impossible for the Indonesian government to proceed with sending Mantiri.

Finally, his name was withdrawn and the post was left vacant and relations between our two countries were at a crisis point. Such was the situation between our two countries prior to my appointment as ambassador to Australia.

For almost a year, the post in Canberra was vacant, but by late November 1995, while the Jakarta media were busy speculating as to who would be Sabam's successor, without any forewarning I was informed by telephone that I was to be reassigned to Canberra.

Australia was changing leadership from a Labor to a Coalition government whose campaign statements on Indonesia in general and on East Timor in particular were quite strong.

A poll by the Australian National University, the NSW University and Queensland University showed that 76 percent of the coalition candidates considered Indonesia a "threat", compared to 36 percent of the Labor candidates.

On the Indonesian side, there was a strong perception that part of the reason why relations between our two countries were so accident-prone, was the carping fractious media and its highly critical writings about Indonesia. So one of the most important instructions given to me was to be able to deal with the Australian media.

The cultural difficulty that I have to face in Australia was aptly reflected by one Australian National University (ANU) professor, Dr. Ann Kumar. She said on the occasion of the launching of a book on Indonesia: "The Ambassador of Indonesia ... has a job, which involves constantly dealing not only with the inevitable difficulties springing from the very different political and economic history of our two countries but also our different styles. Should he remain a politely understated Javanese and have his message completely pass over the heads of an Australian audience or speak as we Ockers do and have everyone back home thinking he's completely forgotten his manners?"

In Paris, I seldom received any attention from the French media, but I immediately felt the heat from the Australian media when I was still in Paris. Channel 9 and David Jenkins of the Sydney Morning Herald called for an interview.

I had a 15-minute interview with Channel 9, but only one item was aired by Channel 9 for less than one minute, and that was when I stated that what happened on Nov. 11, 1991, was an incident and not a massacre.

Immediately, the headline in Australia was that "Wiryono is just another Mantiri" and should be rejected. But Foreign Minister Gareth Evans cooled the situation down by saying that it was "the form of words that is used consistently by Indonesian Ministers and officials right from the beginning. So no particular significance should be attributed to it, end of story".

Jenkins' article on the other hand was good.

I realize that state-to-state relations are conducted by governments and that economic relations are carried out more and more by the private sector. The people-to-people interactions are taking place naturally and are becoming more and more important. But the media is increasingly becoming a crucial player. The media is clearly playing an important role in our bilateral relations and I know that Sabam Siagian's commitment to Australia was based on the consideration that being a journalist he would know how to deal with the media.

My own view is that diplomacy owes a great deal to the profession of journalism. There is no doubt that the media has indeed contributed considerably to making the world first a global village and now a global neighborhood. It has made people all over the world tremendously more knowledgeable and interested in international affairs.

And during my last few months as ambassador to Australia, I was made even more aware of how ordinary citizens as the vessel of public opinion have a great deal to do with the making of our two governments' stands on the issues involving our two countries.

Much of the public opinion in our two countries is based on the information, analyses and opinion leadership provided by the media. In a very real sense, therefore, the media is inexorably involved in diplomacy. Although it does not make policy, it exercises a great deal of influence on the government and the general public.

In fact, much of our government's polices were media-driven, which is in many ways unfortunate but inevitable.

The media supplies a great part of information which shape people's perceptions and therefore has something to do with people's responses to government policies and actions.

Accordingly, an ambassador, no matter how professional, skillful and experienced he or she is, can hardly do a good job of winning appreciation for his or her country's policies if the media does not take up those policies. Moreover, it is not enough that the policies of a country are reported; it is even more important that they are reported correctly.

Therefore, far from being natural enemies, the diplomat and the journalist, whether they like it or not and despite their wariness of each other, are in fact the most natural partners. They both have something to put across to the public. Diplomats want to put across their government's policies and all that their government stands for.

On the other hand, it is the job of the journalist to report the facts and his or her understanding of the facts about those policies. Between what the diplomat wants to convey and what the journalist actually reports, there should be little difference. Unfortunately, we all know too well that is not always the case.

My own impression is that the news media tends to be too sensational, intrusive and focuses only on the negative. On both sides, I feel the media's bluntness extends to rudeness, which is uncalled for, and of course unnecessary. But somehow the media is still believable.

This is partly because on many occasions government officials are less than straightforward, and are too defensive in their approach. We are now dealing with a media that has grown omnivorous and more than ever before increasingly intrusive and opinionated.

Gone are the days when they were just reporting. They are now participating, and they are important and powerful players. Moreover, unlike politicians or officials, the media is accountable to themselves.

Therefore, I would like to repeat my plea which I made when leaving Australia: that the media on both sides of the relationship would do well to contemplate the considerable power they have at their disposal to influence public opinion by informing the public in a balanced and objective manner. Thus, the media may positively influence the course of relations and interactions between our two countries.

The media needs to serve the objectives of social enlightenment by providing a perspective that will minimize misunderstandings, misperceptions and the prejudice and negative judgment that they breed.