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Jakarta Journalists Risk Lives to Cover COVID-19

Men sit spaced apart as a social distancing effort to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in a train station waiting area, April 7, 2020, in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Journalists in Indonesia say they are risking their lives to cover the COVID-19 pandemic because some local media companies are ignoring internationally observed safety guidelines.

Upon arriving at one of Jakarta's underground transit stations to report on conditions, a local reporter said the assignment wasn't worth the risk to his own health.

“All this time I’ve always underestimated the coronavirus and didn’t take it seriously," the radio journalist told VOA's Indonesian Service. The reporter requested anonymity for fear of repercussions from his employer.

"But after casualties increased, I am more aware," he said. "When getting off my motorcycle, I don’t dare to touch anything in the terminals or bus stations. I don’t dare to touch the walls or anything.”

Considered essential workers in most countries, journalists play an important role reporting on the impact of the virus and dispelling disinformation. But in doing so, reporters — particularly in developing countries — risk their health.

Moez Chakchouk, UNESCO assistant director-general for communication and information, said the risks are greater for journalists at under-resourced outlets, and especially freelancers.

"Freelance journalists are especially vulnerable in terms of physical and psychological safety, as they do not always have access to the same resources and support as staff journalists," he said in a statement that called on media organizations to train all journalists on precautions and equip them with protective gear.

Like many reporters covering the pandemic in the world’s fourth-most-populous country, the Jakarta-based radio reporter said he is still expected to enter high-risk exposure zones such as metro stations and government press conferences without face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer or health coverage.

Roughly a fifth of Indonesians lack health care. A local journalists association reported that media workers at the country’s smaller media outlets also often lack coverage.

Indonesian groups, along with international organizations, including the Global Investigative Journalists Network and Committee to Protect Journalists have issued advice for reporters covering the outbreak.

And the reporter in Jakarta said his employer has advised its journalists to take precautions and practice social distancing. But it does not provide protective gear or take steps to limit reporters’ exposure to public gatherings, he said.

Defying restrictions

Medical experts recently called for tighter restrictions on movement in Indonesia, where known cases of COVID-19 have gone from none in early March to 2,738, with 221 deaths, as of April 7.

Ratna Ariyanti, a member of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AIJ), which tracks journalist complaints about labor issues, workplace safety, and threats and harassment in the field, said most domestic news outlets haven't modified procedures for covering the outbreak.

As recently as April 3, she said, some central and provincial government authorities continued holding press conferences despite a police-enforced ban on groups announced March 22.

Although the ban didn’t explicitly mention official government business such as press conferences, Ariyanti said authorities should practice what they preach.

“Officials should obey the edict by not conducting the press conferences which will trigger the crowd of journalists,” she told VOA.

She also said multiple journalists have reported instances of elected or government officials inviting journalists into hospitals or airports to report on donations the officials have made.

By partnering with the Jakarta-based “Committee for Journalist Safety” — a consortium of Indonesian free press advocacy groups — AIJ has distilled those anonymous complaints into a safety protocols booklet that newsrooms can consult to keep reporters safe while covering the outbreak.

While AIJ says some reporters fear that filing complaints with the organization may cost them their jobs, Ariyanti said she hopes the booklet is proof that all complaints from the field remain anonymous.

For Jakarta-based media consultant Arif Zulkifli, keeping reporters safe means making international safety guidelines visible in all newsrooms while connecting directly with journalists in the field.

Beyond advising social-distance training and newsroom-wide allocation of face masks, hand sanitizer and other protective gear, Zulkifli also implores reporters to work smarter.

"I still see journalists gathering in crowds, fighting over photo-op positioning in less than 1 meter of space," he told VOA. “If close meetings are inevitable, then at least keep the 1-meter distance."

International norms

Jakarta's foreign correspondents say their outlets were better prepared to address hazards of covering the outbreak.

“From the start, we weren't allowed to cover stories in hospitals," said Kyodo News Correspondent Christine Tjandraningsih, explaining that her colleagues have been restricted to telework or newsroom-based reporting.

"I even self-isolated for several days because I was in the same room with a bunch of presidential palace reporters to cover the minister from March 6 through 13, every day from morning to night," she said. "But perhaps every bureau is different, depending on the situation.”

Large international outlets such as CNN, The New York Times, and BBC — the majority of which abide by journalism safety guidelines issued by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe — have turned to around-the-clock telework arrangements for the majority of reporters, typically sending correspondents into the field only if essential.

Voice of America ordered 80% of its Washington staff to begin teleworking on March 15. On March 22, foreign correspondents and stringers were advised against reporting from high-risk exposure sites such as hospitals and large public gatherings. Venturing into the field for any reason requires practicing social distancing, and foreign bureaus are outfitted with safety equipment such as masks.

Unified messaging

Since late March, nearly 100 national and regional media companies across Indonesia have begun using the hashtag #MediaLawanCovid19, which translates as MediaAgainstCovid19.

The tag's creator, Metta Dharmasaputra, said he hopes the hashtag continues to gain visibility across platforms and will unify journalists in their efforts to stay safe in the field.

“Posters [bearing the hashtag] were made by our friends in Katadata," a Jakarta-based digital media, data and research company, Dharmasaputra told VOA.

"[It was used in] videos by CNN [Indonesia] and Metro TV, and postcards were made by," he said, adding that it was also cited in radio pieces by KBR, Indonesia's first independent radio station.

"All of them were released simultaneously, as if they were all pooling content altogether,” he said.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranks Indonesia 124 out of 180 countries in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, a 2-point drop from its 2018 ranking.

This story originated in VOA's Indonesian Service.