Newsrooms in Crisis: Covid-19 and Journalism in Indonesia

By Andreyka Natalegawa and Kyra Jasper

The twin public health and economic crises of Covid-19 have disproportionately impacted journalists and members of the press in Indonesia. Much like elsewhere in the region, newsrooms across Indonesia have announced significant pay cuts and layoffs, all while journalists risk infection, cyberattacks, and censorship in the course of their duties. These trends bode ill for the state of the media in the region, imperiling an already-fragile industry that is contending with growing restrictions to freedom of press amid democratic backsliding.
Indonesia’s Jakarta Post, the country’s leading English-language newspaper, announced on August 28 that it was considering laying off two-thirds of its workforce. The announcement, which has so far led to the resignation of over 20 journalists, reflects the vulnerability of Indonesian newsrooms to the economic impacts of the pandemic. Journalists at Tempo and Jawa Pos have also reportedly been laid off over the course of the pandemic. And since March, Indonesia’s Legal Aid Institute for the Press has received 61 reports by journalists from 14 Jakarta-based media organizations who have either been laid off, furloughed, or received pay cuts.
Similar trends can be seen throughout the region. Thailand’s Nation Multimedia in April slashed salaries and permitted managers to lay off employees. Malaysia’s Media Prima in June laid off 300 employees. And Singapore Press Holdings, publisher of The Straits Times, announced in September that it was laying off 140 employees due to the impact of the pandemic on advertising revenues.
For many of these outlets, financial difficulties began long before the Covid-19 pandemic. But a freefall in both advertising and circulation revenues has exacerbated the situation, forcing newsrooms to retrench staff to survive. A July survey of 140 Indonesian media companies found that respondents lost between 40 and 80 percent of their advertising income during the pandemic. These developments have forced newspapers to seek out other sources of revenue, including government funding; the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development in November urged the government to financially support media companies enduring economic hardship during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, given the nature of their work and their companies’ failure to enforce health protocols, journalists face outsized risk of contracting Covid-19. In March, dozens of journalists in Jakarta and Bogor were placed under observation after coming into contact with government sources who later tested positive for Covid-19. Indonesian journalists in April accused local media companies of ignoring Covid-19 safety guidelines. More recently, the Alliance for Independent Journalists in November said that at least 242 journalists in the country contracted Covid-19 between March and September and, “Journalists and media workers have taken a risk of getting infected…while reporting in the field and going to the office to deliver news.”
In tandem with the health risks associated with their work, journalists also face retaliation for their reporting on the pandemic. In May, a journalist affiliated with received death threats after publishing an article covering President Joko Widodo’s planned visit to a Bekasi shopping mall to review the government’s relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions. In July, a photojournalist with National Geographic was wrongly accused of fabricating content and had his personal information shared online (known as “doxing”) after publishing a photograph of the body of a Covid-19 victim. Meanwhile, in August, independent news outlets that were critical of the Indonesian government’s response to Covid-19 fell victim to an “unprecedented number” of distributed denial-of-service attacks. These attacks, which primarily targeted and, deleted articles scrutinizing the government’s response to Covid-19 and subjected their journalists to doxing attacks.
These developments coincide with journalists facing a political environment that is increasingly hostile to freedom of the press and freedom of expression. The Indonesian National Police in April issued a directive saying it would monitor and investigate online criticism of the president and the government as part of its anti-disinformation efforts, potentially imperiling journalists covering Indonesia’s controversial response to Covid-19. A recent study conducted by Indikator Politik Indonesia on freedom of expression online found that 69.6 percent of respondents were more afraid now than before to publicly voice their opinions on current issues. And over the past five years, authorities brought 233 cases involving Indonesia’s restrictive Electronic Information and Transaction Law, compared to only 74 in the prior five years.

Indonesia is not alone in seeing growing restrictions on freedom of the press over the course of the pandemic. Malaysian authorities in July questioned Al Jazeera journalists for their coverage of the country’s treatment of migrant workers, prompting the police to raid the network’s Kuala Lumpur offices in August. The Thai government, meanwhile, has used its draconian Computer-Related Crimes Act to prosecute media outlets amid the pandemic and anti-government protests. In October, Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society launched investigations into four media companies — and ultimately forced Voice TV to suspend all its online platforms – for broadcasting news on the ongoing protests and for “disseminating distorted information that is inciting unrest.” A journalist with the independent newspaper Prachatai was also arrested while reporting on demonstrations in Bangkok. In addition to silencing journalists and media companies, these laws have created a culture of self-censorship.
The presence of a robust, free, and independent press is a core element of democratic consolidation. At a time when some Southeast Asian governments have exploited the pandemic to roll back democratic reforms, the role of the Fourth Estate has become increasingly important. More immediately, given the paucity of government data, journalists and civil society organizations have become a crucial source for objective information on Covid-19. But as the pandemic continues to spread unchecked and the economic fallout of the crisis fully comes to bear, newsrooms in Indonesia face an uncertain future that could impede their ability to conduct their duties, and by extension preserve freedom of expression, when high-quality journalism is needed now more than ever.
Andreyka Natalegawa is a program coordinator and research assistant with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kyra Jasper is a research intern with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.