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Student journalists in Indonesia face backlash after reporting on sexual harassment

The Guardian - July 17, 2023

Natashya Gutierrez – Yolanda Agne, 23, was just months away from graduating in journalism at a university in Maluku province, Indonesia, when she was banned from finishing her studies.

In March last year, the student magazine Lintas – of which Agne was then editor-in-chief – published a damning piece on the prevalence of sexual harassment on her campus at Ambon Islamic State Institute. Among the alleged perpetrators were eight lecturers, with incidents dating over a six-year period.

The article triggered a furious reaction on campus. Two days after it was published, Agne and two of her colleagues were summoned to a meeting by university officials, where the student journalists were asked to provide details of the abuses. Agne refused to disclose the names of survivors who had agreed to speak in confidence.

Instead, she suggested that if the campus was serious about investigating the allegations, it should create an independent team involving students and staff, in accordance with government guidelines on how to prevent and manage sexual violence in Islamic colleges.

The officials refused and instead ordered the closure of Lintas, reported nine student journalists to the police for defamation and later suspended Agne and two of her colleagues. A police investigation is ongoing.

More than a year later, Agne has still not been allowed to return to finish her degree. "I was ready for the risks, but the termination of my studies goes beyond expectations. This is hard for me because it involves my family, who expected me to graduate," she said.

Most Indonesian universities have at least one student-run newsroom, operating under the supervision of the universities, which in turn are controlled by the ministry of education (non-Islamic schools) and the ministry of religious affairs (Islamic schools). This gives student journalists little recourse when they are threatened or censored by university administrators.

The International Federation of Journalists has reported a rise in attacks on student journalists in Indonesia covering issues including wrongdoing by university officials or other student organisations, or challenging regulations and sensitive social issues in the country, such as attitudes towards homosexuality.

There were 185 incidents of repression against student journalists between 2020 and 2021, mostly from education officials but also by the military, police and fellow students, according to the Indonesian Student Press Association (PPMI), which said the real figure was much higher.

"There are a number of student press institutions that prefer to remain silent when they are victims of attacks from campus officials or other perpetrators because they are intimidated," said Adil al-Hasan, national PPMI advocacy coordinator.

Hasan said student journalists were dropping out of media activities either because of intimidation or because of pressure from parents, who plead with their children to prioritise graduating and joining the workforce over the high risk of engaging in student journalism with no protection or pay.

Achmad Rizki Muazam, 25, who now works for a local media outlet in North Sumatra, received death threats and was badly beaten by a group of fellow students at Indraprasta University, south Jakarta, in March 2020, after writing an opinion piece challenging its association of Islamic students' support for a controversial national law on job creation.

"The community, including student officials and other students, think: 'You are not real journalists, just students engaging in activities.' They tend to see our position as weak, so they feel they can go around intimidating and threatening us," he said.

For the estimated 100,000 professional journalists in Indonesia, the situation is also perilous, with the country ranking 108 out of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders' 2023 press freedom index. Violence against Indonesian journalists has been on the rise over the past two years, with 42 reported incidents by mid-2023.

Last December, a new criminal code was passed, which activists fear further curtails freedom of religion and expression. The revamped legislation criminalising criticism of the government and expanding blasphemy laws won't come into effect until January 2026, but progressive media outlets are already reporting increasing Islamisation in their newsrooms.

Working journalists are covered by the Press Council of Indonesia, which has an official agreement with the police, allowing it to mediate when allegations of defamation are made against journalists, before charges are filed. Student journalists have been calling for the agreement to be replicated for them, but face opposition from universities.

The ministry of education did not return the Guardian's request for comment, while Dr Thobib al-Asyhar, who heads the directorate of Islamic religious higher education at the ministry of religious affairs, said he was unaware of existing conversations involving his department.

Agne herself has not given up on journalism despite being prevented from resuming her studies and has decided to try to restart university elsewhere from August. "It's a calling to my soul to become a journalist," she said. "We strengthen each other by deciding to continue to seek the truth and bringing the voice of victims to light. I don't want to back down."

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2023/jul/17/student-journalists-in-indonesia-face-backlash-after-reporting-on-sexual-harassmen