If it bleeds it leads, the old adage goes. Unless it is one of the dozens of Indonesian women murdered in horrific instances of gendered and family violence each year. Their stories are often buried in low-circulation local press or ignored entirely, with activists forced to carry the burden of forcing these tragedies onto the national agenda.
The April 2016 gang rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl in Bengkulu, Sumatra, exposed the reluctance of both local media and international media based in Jakarta to cover violence against women. The girl, known by her initials YY, was assaulted by 14 boys before being left to die in dense scrubland.
The story looked as though it would peter out before a group of feminist activists launched a campaign.
Kate Walton, an Australian activist based in Jakarta, is credited with elevating YY’s story to national and international press. She runs the Menghitung Pembunuhan Perempuan (Counting Dead Women) project, which monitors local press throughout the country for cases of women killed in family or gendered violence.
“I remembered being shocked at the violence of the case, and asking other activists whether they’d heard about it; no-one had,” she tells Splice.
A combination of a huge population and a concentration of media hubs in the major cities – to the detriment of farther-flung regions like Bengkulu – means social media is typically the most effective method of disseminating local news in the hopes that Jakarta-based press will pick it up.
But Facebook and Twitter alone was not enough, so Walton and other activists—in an effort to find justice in a case where the perpetrators had not yet been identified—contacted reporters directly to alert them to the story.
“YY was a teenage girl from a remote village in a district of no international or even national note. Her family was poor and her parents worked on plantations. YY was, in many people’s eyes, an unremarkable person,” says Walton.
“The story would have been entirely different had YY been a Jakartan teenager from a well-off family with political or business connections.
But poor village girls? No one cares about them.”
Her story became emblematic of a recent spike in violence against women and children, which included other the brutal killings of girls in Bali and Jakarta. It forced the government to act and portions of local media to reflect on how best report on sensitive cases.
The Indonesian Press Council also announced plans to establish reporting guidelines based on recommendations made by the National Commission on Violence Against Women, but Yovantra Arief, head of the Research and Media Division at Jakarta-based media monitor Remotivi, says there is yet to be any formal follow-up.
Likewise, he says sexual violence guidelines laid out in the press council’s Journalist Code of Conduct fall short by simply covering the privacy of survivors, but failing to address the complexity of the issue.
The Indonesian Press Council did not respond to requests for comment.
Lack of regulation persists
And the guidelines that do exist are loosely adhered to at best. Walton notes that bringing cases of gendered violence to people’s attention is only half the media battle, as it’s a struggle to ensure journalists approach the stories respectfully and accurately.
“Reports continue to use provocative and sensationalist language, such as describing murdered women as ‘beautiful’ and ‘sexy’ and frequently comment on women’s personal lives, as though their behaviour led to the deaths,” Walton says.
Personal details, such as the home address and workplace of victims is often revealed by the media.
“[This] can have a major impact on survivors of violence, as they can be identified and found, and even on the families of those who were murdered – such as YY’s family, who left their village after social pressure,” says Walton.
Arief says one of the most damaging aspects of media reporting on sexual violence is a “tendency to blame the victim”, a common practice not limited to tabloids.
He pointed to a report from online news giant Merdeka.com which said an ojek, or motorcycle taxi, driver had been ‘inspired’ to assault a customer by her dress.
“In these kinds of reporting, the survivors are somehow guilty for arousing the perpetrators, which makes the perpetrators khilaf, a term commonly cited in sexual violence reporting as an excuse for perpetrators which can be translated as ‘unknowingly making a mistake,’” he says.
Arief sees concerns with reporting on violence as part of wider issues in the country, with local media becoming a battleground for cultural tensions.
“Aside from sexual violence issues, wider topics on gender and sexuality in Indonesia, such as LGBTQ, for example, or issues on nationalism and racism, are becoming public discourse and the media is a part of the problem by amplifying stereotypes and misconceptions.”
“While giving accurate and ethical reporting is crucial in journalistic work, it is important too for the journalist to take a stance on these issues to encourage critical and progressive thinking among the public. I think that’s what the Indonesian people desperately need.”