Monday, August 18, 2014

A Journey In (And Out Of) International Journalism -- Chapter V Surviving a Revolution


This is based on a talk I was asked to give recently, turned into a chapter series here.

Chapter 1 -- Wanting to Become an International Journalist

Chapter 2 -- Studies, Soccer and Internships

Chapter 3 -- Getting a First Job (with RFI in Paris)

Chapter 4 -- Getting to Indonesia



After finishing up my French military DJ post, I returned to Indonesia in 1997 initially to participate in an in-line hockey tournament, with my team the Batavia Demons. I also freelanced for the Indonesian Observer, the Jakarta Post and other English-language publications, providing mostly features about sports, music, expatriates and art. One about rapper Iwa-K even made it into a Wikipedia entry (see reference 1). Those were exciting times as well, as the days of long-time dictator Suharto came to an end.



I also started a full-time overnight job for an English language news morning show on the SCTV television station, helping with script translations, copy editing, voice overs and tape editing under the direction of Albert Kuhon. The job also gave me a front row seat to what was happening. One night at midnight, when Suharto was still in power, after a day of riots, we received an official letter forbidding us from showing any footage of growing disturbances and rioters, so instead we showed the effects on a maternity ward burning and a school shut down, making the show even stronger. I tried continuing to freelance for international radio, but it seemed my perspectives were becoming too inside, with too many details, confusing editors in European capitals. I also noticed more and more foreign journalists arriving, and congregating together for very expensive brunches in Jakarta's best hotels. I found it strange how they seemed to be going on urban guerrilla safaris, hunting down "money shots" and "money audio" as their prize catches, before retreating to their expensive hotels, and trying to one up each other without disclosing who their sources were for being in the right place at the right time.



Driving at night through Jakarta in the SCTV van, I would be acclaimed at vigilante roadblocks, since during this revolution for "reformasi" (reform), journalists were considered on the right side of history, pushing for more openness and transparency and fighting against the powers of "KKN" (corruption, collusion and nepotism). My sister, who then also lived in Jakarta, was pregnant, and fled with her husband to Singapore. As riots worsened, and parts of rich neighborhoods were being ransacked, she asked me to empty her pool and fill it with all her husband's carpets, statuettes, paintings and other prized belongings (which I didn't). Chinese neighborhoods were being attacked, and as the army fractured, some Chinese businessmen allied to the Suharto regime paid for tanks to protect their homes. This happened even as other tanks in the same divisions started rolling against Suharto himself. Meanwhile, foreigners fled to the airport, and were robbed at vigilante roadblocks, since they were also seen (rightly so) as collaborators of the Suharto regime. Some of them arrived with only their passport and plane tickets left, wearing only underwear, with everything from their belts to shoes taken as well.

Throw Back Thursday, Indonesia Television Gig from Nico Colombant on Vimeo.



In May 1998, the time finally came for Suharto to step down, starting a surprisingly smooth and not very violent transition (at least in Jakarta) to more democracy in Indonesia. The country was also in the throes of an economic crisis, and I decided, not being able to overcome a bad bout of nasty parasites, and seeing my nightly salary which was paid in rupiah cut in ten in terms of dollars, and barely being able to afford a plane ticket back to the United States, that it was time for me to go as well. The SCTV crew made a farewell video (above, the nicest goodbye gift I've ever received). Before I leave Indonesia here, though, I'll write next about being a fixer for the so-called "big feet" or "vultures", those headquarter-based journalists who parachute in during times of trouble, such as in 1998 in Indonesia, when it was at the center of the world's news cycle.

If you enjoyed this posting, other chapters of this series on my journey in and out of international reporting are the following:

Chapter 1 -- Wanting to Become an International Journalist

Chapter 2 -- Studies, Soccer and Internships

Chapter 3 -- Getting a First Job (with RFI in Paris)

Chapter 4 -- Getting to Indonesia

Chapter 5 -- Surviving a Revolution

Chapter 6 -- Fixers and Fixing

Chapter 7 -- Getting the Dream Job

Chapter 8 -- African Stories

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