Despite the global trials facing print media and pressures from religious hardliners, one Indonesian paper is remaining faithful to its founding principles.
Jakob Oetama might be 86 but the co-founder of Indonesia’s oldest and most widely read newspaper still looms large over the Jakarta headquarters of Kompas Gramedia. A chair is set aside for him at the head of the table in the conference room, where the section editors of the Kompas newspaper hold their twice-daily editorial meetings, and editor in chief Budiman Tanuredjo catches up with Oetama twice a week to talk over the paper’s coverage.
But it’s in the minds of the group’s journalists where Jakob has the most impact. His philosophy of journalism, which embodies rigorous ethics and steadfast credibility, informs every article that’s printed in the paper, posted online or broadcast on television and is drilled into each new reporter through a rigorous year-long training programme.
“Kompas is Pak Jakob Oetama,” says Tanuredjo, using the Indonesian term for a respected older man. “We don’t want to create noise. We want to create a voice.”
From the newspaper that launched in 1965, Kompas Gramedia group is now one of Indonesia’s most respected media brands, with a network of regional papers, a television channel, magazines and a book-publishing arm, as well as a slew of bookshops and a chain of hotels. The paper, however, remains central to the business. “We want to survive for another 50 years, including Kompas of course,” says Lilik Oetama, the youngest of the founder’s five children, who took over as CEO of the group in 2015.
In the paper’s quietly humming newsroom, English literature graduate M Ikhsan Mahar is hard at work. He joined the paper’s training programme in 2014 and has been working on the police beat for three years. Most of the paper’s journalists spend the morning reporting and don’t get into the office until the early evening, when a trolley of food – satay wrapped in banana leaf, rice and local drinks – is wheeled around to those in need of sustenance.
Ikhsan says he’s proud to work for Kompas because it focuses more on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of a story than the ‘who’ and the ‘what’. “We write about the background to the tragedies,” he says, citing the paper’s reportage of the terrorist attacks that hit Jakarta in 2016, when a branch of Starbucks in the heart of the city was targeted, and in 2017 when suicide bombers struck a bus station in the city’s east, killing three policemen and injuring 11 others. “We look at how the police are trying to solve the problem. Not just the immediate human tragedy but the radicalisation too.”
Every journalist joining Kompas is expected to get to grips with the company’s values and abide by a strict code of ethics that includes not accepting gifts or joining a political party. It’s a policy that extends across the company’s businesses and helps reinforce trust in the paper, particularly as Indonesian media becomes increasingly entwined with politics and business. A 2012 report from the Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance, a Jakarta-based think-tank, found that Indonesian media is largely concentrated in the hands of just 12 groups, about half of them controlled by businessmen turned politicians. That independence is another of Jakob’s standards, all of which have been in place since Kompas’s founding.
The paper’s first edition rolled off the presses in June 1965 and into a climate of economic upheaval and political intrigue, as the nation’s founding president Sukarno struggled to manage competing groups of Muslims, nationalists, Communists and the military – all with different visions of what the young nation should be. An early declaration of Kompas’s mission, now yellowing, hangs on the wall of the paper’s extensive library and archive. Jakob and his co-founder Petrus Kanisius (PK) Ojong wanted to produce a newspaper that was not beholden to any political master and would cover the issues that were important to ordinary Indonesians.
They also wanted readers to be able to trust Kompas’s reporting and demanded editorial independence. Somewhat paradoxically, it was a government minister and the head of the Indonesian Catholic Party, Frans Seda, who originally brought the idea of publishing a newspaper that could act as a counterbalance to the nation’s Communist Party to Jakob and Ojong. The idea appealed to the two, a Javanese Catholic and an Indonesian of Chinese descent, respectively, living in a majority Muslim nation.
Just three months after Kompas’s first edition rolled out, an apparent military coup plunged Indonesia into crisis. Six generals were assassinated and thrown into a well in an incident that was blamed on the country’s Communist party and led to the murder of hundreds of thousands of people accused of having Communist links. By 1966, Suharto, a virtually unknown general, was edging his way into power – where he would remain for three decades.
With Jakob as editor in chief, Kompas navigated its way through the political, economic and social upheaval with restraint, willing to gently criticise and highlight problems but, most importantly, also champion solutions. While other publications found themselves banned, Kompas survived, doggedly establishing a reputation among readers for credible and trustworthy reporting. By the end of the decade it was the most read paper in the Country.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. In 1978 it too found itself in trouble after a number of stories revealing the business activities of Suharto’s family provoked the president’s ire. The paper’s printing permit was suspended for nearly three weeks and Kompas was only able to resume publication after what Lilik describes as a “gentleman’s agreement” that the paper would not criticise the president or the military directly.
Ojong, who died in 1980, was reluctant to sign but Jakob convinced him. “Pak Jakob’s concern was that if we don’t have Kompas anymore then we cannot do anything to help people get involved in democracy in Indonesia,” says Lilik. “If we still have Kompas we can still help people. From then on Kompas was more careful.”
As a Catholic-owned media group in a country where 87 per cent of the population is Muslim, Kompas also treads carefully around religious issues. While Lilik is reluctant to openly discuss the political and religious climate in which Kompas operates, he notes that a story published by his paper would be treated entirely differently to one printed in another paper. “It’s kind of a riddle for our group,” he says. “The same article put in Kompas compared to a paper owned by the majority – the effect wouldn’t be the same. If we make even a small mistake [hardline Islamist groups] will come after us so we have to be careful.”
Kompas’s journalists recall an incident in 2016 when they received a visit from several white-robed members of the Islamic Defenders Front, a group of hardliners that has become more strident in its demands in recent years, testing Indonesia’s reputation for moderation. The group was angered by a report on a woman who had been caught selling food during Ramadan’s daylight hours, an offence under Islamic law. They felt that Kompas had been overly sympathetic to the woman and made the police enforcing the order look like aggressors.
The robed hardliners demanded that the newspaper stop covering such stories, warning of a repeat of the anti-Chinese riots that rocked Jakarta in 1998. Tanuredjo and his colleagues apologised for “crossing boundaries”. Their apology was recorded and uploaded to YouTube.
While the paper has faced criticism for capitulating, media analyst Wija Wijayanto says, “Kompas’s first priority is their safety and survival. They want to avoid having enemies so behind their impartiality is an interest to avoid conflict with powerful groups in Indonesia.”
With Indonesia facing regional polls this year and presidential elections in 2019, political and religious tensions are rising, which may test Kompas’s resolve further still. Conservative Islamist groups played a pivotal role in the bruising battle for last year’s governorship of Jakarta, in which the incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese and Christian popularly known as Ahok, ran against former academic and education minister and Muslim, Anies Baswedan. Ahok found himself charged under Indonesia’s controversial and wide-ranging blasphemy law for comments made at a political rally. Found guilty, he is now serving a two-year prison term – meanwhile, Baswedan is in office. Journalists at Kompas fear that similar tactics may be used as candidates begin positioning themselves for the next presidential election but insist that their commitment to fact over opinion remains the best way to handle such controversies.
“It’s about perception,” says deputy managing editor Johanes Heru Margianto. “It’s true that the founder is a Catholic and the first supporter was the Catholic Party but the values of our group are not Catholic – they are about democracy.”
Balancing religious divisions isn’t the paper’s only challenge. Indonesia isn’t immune to the disruption facing the print-media industry worldwide and Kompas has been expanding its digital offerings for two decades. A few floors above the main newsroom, the kompas.com headquarters is a hive of activity against a backdrop of white tiles, royal-blue walls and splashes of orange. The team of young journalists type away against a wall scrawled with quotes from founder Jakob. Among the many insightful comments, “The key to journalism is relevance” and “We want to build a microcosm of Indonesia, to be the spirit of Indonesia, to create a newspaper based on pluralism and humanism” are two that stand out.
The Kompas website is free to read – and the third-most widely read news site in the country. But kompas.com’s editor Margianto insists that the site is no content farm and that Jakob’s principles are as important here as they are to the mainstream paper. “We don’t do click-bait news,” says Margianto. “We still stand for facts, confirmation – it must be the truth.”
Across the narrow lane from the newsroom, a new tower looms over the cluster of buildings that make up Kompas Gramedia, dwarfing the traditional architecture of the art gallery and cultural centre that showcases Jakob’s collection of Indonesian art and antiques. This grey-green version of the Shard is 28 storeys high and, by the middle of 2018, will house the group’s first integrated newsroom, enabling broadcast, digital and print journalists to work alongside each other for the first time, collaborating on stories, pooling resources and expertise.
“Our consumers don’t see news as being newspaper or television,” says vice-ceo Jayant Bhargava, a former pwc consultant who joined the group in November. “They consume it in all forms during the day. We’re trying to come back to the viewpoint of the consumer to make sure that we’re following the same journey. The power is actually about all of us being together.”
Subtle changes to Kompas’s look, with the introduction of new colours and fonts, are now being rolled out as part of the first redesign in more than a decade. Lilik says that the refreshed Kompas is designed to appeal to a younger audience but that the publication will retain the look of a “serious newspaper”. Despite all the investment in digital, Lilik says that “the print [edition] will always be here – until there’s no more paper and no more ink.” Bhargava nods and adds, “Until there is the last man standing who’s willing to read a newspaper.”
Covering religion in Indonesia
Indonesia is one of Southeast Asia’s few vibrant democracies and its diverse media environment is helped by legislation designed to safeguard the freedom of the press. But while the secular nation’s guiding principle is “unity in diversity”, coverage of religion in a nation that is predominantly Muslim but recognises the world’s six major faiths and has its own indigenous religions has become increasingly fraught in recent years. Hardline groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front have muscled their way into public discourse and played a key role in the 2017 conviction of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, aka Ahok, on charges of blasphemy, a crime under a 50-year-old law. Observers estimate that there has been only one case of acquittal of such charges – of a magazine editor in 1968 – since the law was introduced. In such a climate, it’s not only Kompas that finds itself the target of the extreme conservatives, other journalists, especially those who report on religious issues, say they are often harassed, threatened and ostracised for their reporting.