Engendering Media: Series 4, Publication 3 – Insights from Indonesia and the Philippines

Approximate reading time: ±35 minutes

Introduction

Having introduced democratic reforms and institutions following the end of post-independence dictatorships in the twentieth century, what do press liberties look like in contemporary Indonesia and the Philippines? Unfortunately, newsmakers face significant challenges under more recent recent authoritarian regimes: namely, Joko Widodo’s government in Indonesia (2014–present) and Rodrigo Duterte’s administration in the Philippines (2016–22), the effects of which have persisted under his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. We find it important to study contemporary newsmaking experiences in both countries to more deeply understand existing threats to freedom of expression (and, by extension, democracy), and how newsmakers exercise agency[1] despite facing three emerging areas of concern: (1) the state; (2) violence; and (3) capital. By applying a gender-sensitive lens, we outline how newsmakers, including those from independent and alternative media organisations, struggle but also adapt to present challenges, before recommending possible steps towards improving regional press freedom.


Contextualising our participants

The terms “alternative” and “independent” are used interchangeably below. Their usage among participants is in line with Forde’s (2011) suggestion that alternative practices are “not merely a reaction to the mainstream, but in some cases takes very little account of mainstream journalistic practices and values”. These include “community, grassroots, radical, citizens and independent” media (p. 2). Some of our practitioners also drew a clear distinction between themselves and mainstream media — that is, private or state-linked media, according to a classification system which we previously identified

We conducted semi-structured interviews with ten female newsmakers[2], as well as a non-binary journalist from Indonesia (N16), and a gay male media practitioner from the Philippines (N18).[3] Their backgrounds ranged from television to data journalism. One participant (N27) was also an indigenous woman from northern Luzon, one of two participants living outside the Philippine national capital region.[4] We particularly highlight the crucial work of grassroots organisations such as Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI, Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists), Altermidya (a national-level network of alternative media groups in the Philippines), and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).[5]

The toppling of the Suharto regime in 1998 in Indonesia saw a short spell of complete media independence, but unfortunately, current newsmakers face threats to their freedom (Human Rights Watch, 2012). Authority over defining who journalists are is centralised through the competency exam set by the Dewan Pers (DP, Press Council) (N22). Because the DP does not recognise alternative media outlets, these lack a legal identity and are therefore deprived of opportunities to participate in reforms such as amending the existing Press Law (CPR1).[7] Another threat is the Kitab Undang-undang Hukum Pidana (KUHP, the new Penal or Criminal Code, which takes effect from 2026), which will institute “bans on insulting the president, the vice-president, state institutions, the flag, and even the state ideology” (Steele, 2023), while “disproportionately impact[ing] women and LGBT people” (Human Rights Watch, 2022). Threats are also economic: the passage of the 2020 “Job Creation Law” (popularly known as the “Omnibus Law”) as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded directly affects workers’ welfare.

The newsmaking industry also remains predominantly male. Some participants concurred that there was significantly lower female representation in newsrooms in Indonesia (N1, N2). Even within progressive, journalist-centred nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) such as AJI, N22 remarked that females remained a minority. While some workplaces were female-dominated at the editorial and journalist levels, women generally remained excluded from leadership positions.  In addition, typically masculine behaviour is often associated with leadership qualities. (e.g., being more assertive and vocal) (N2). When females do exhibit masculine values, however, they may be shunned for being too vocal. This was the case for N1, who was shunned for defending her freelance rates. Lastly, according to N19, female workers’ qualifications are often treated as a secondary consideration in comparison to physical appearances, while our CPR1 participants point out the persistence of “diversity hires”.

Another area of concern is the entrenched “queerphobia” in local newsrooms and broader society (N22; Primastika, 2023). N16, for example, stated that there was a “need to hide our identity because we [could not] be open to our newsroom”. Their choice to be discreet was arguably reinforced by how more visible queer colleagues become the target of harassment, in line with N16’s observation that a belief in a “queer agenda” persisted in the workplace – consider for example how N16’s colleagues attempted to “out” them. Whether deliberately or not, newsrooms are intertwined with political opinion and rhetoric. Outlets may amplify queerphobic opinions from state officials by publishing these verbatim (Primastika, 2023), in a context where the queer community’s existence is increasingly politicised by domestic politicians (CPR1).  

In recent times, “unbridled competition […] drove news coverage to lower and lower depths” and has created “a [post-Marcos Sr] media culture that put a premium on the sensational and superficial” (Coronel, 2008). This cut-throat media environment emerged following the People Power Revolution and has been cited by participants as a pretext for present-day populist backlash. In N27’s words: Duterte “really maximised these facts and [he] turned the public against media organisations”. The result has been anecdotally high attrition rates, where many journalists left to further their studies or join other organisations within civil society (N23). The newsmaking community has experienced significant harm in recent years – from the arrests of Margarita Valle and Frenchie Mae Cumpio to the killing of Percy Lapid in the urban core, among other victims. With Juan Jumalon’s recent murder in Misamis Occidental, 199 journalist deaths have been marked since the Marcos dictatorship ended in 1986 (Magsambol, 2023). In the south, where N26 works, military violence and human rights violations persist among farming and indigenous communities, especially around Davao City – Duterte’s home base.

While significant numbers of female newsmakers occupy key positions in some newsrooms, and some subnational media organisations have a significant representation of gendered and sexual minorities (N26), numerical representation alone does not displace malestream values (N20, N23). Female journalists are effectively conditioned into being as “tough” as men to be taken seriously (CPR1). These examples help to demonstrate how a broad and persistent patriarchal culture, buttressed by “the [authoritarian] system that has prevailed in Duterte’s time”, persists under Marcos Jr (N20). Despite gains made by the Ladlad party, which mobilises in support of queer rights in the Philippines, attempts to ratify the SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics) Equality Bill have met with conservative pushback (N18). While many lawmakers favoured its passage, the push for equality for queer marriages still faces opposition.

Our participants broadly distinguished between domestic mainstream (national) and alternative (community) media, where the latter connotes marginality and precarity. N23, speaking about the alternative media organisation that she was a part of, stated: “[W]e don’t want to be alternative, we want […] to be the source of people’s stories.” But what is considered “alternative” is ever-evolving: Rappler, which started out as a community page on Facebook in 2011 to connect “communities, NGOs, institutions, and government agencies on universal advocacies” before expanding globally, was coded by N26 as mainstream media, being “alternative [only] in a sense that it differs from other newspapers in the way they provide the news”. Being “alternative” is understood as a matter of practice and ideology.

Emergent concerns

In this section, we explore three areas constituting threats to press freedom in Indonesia and the Philippines, which emerged from an analysis of our participants’ main concerns.

As image versus in practice

When discussing her work as a television journalist at an Indonesian state-owned television company, N19 described one of its programmes as follows:

“[T]he general theme […] is to see the unprivileged areas in Indonesia, and how is the current condition like, and how can the government improve this unprivileged area.”

The government, by being described as a singular entity, suggests a top-down vision involving “the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production” (Scott, 1998, p. 4), thus implicitly buttressing the popular image of an all-seeing, overarching state (Migdal, 2004). This image appears salient in conversations with several fellow participants from Indonesia. In practice, states are not unitary: post-Reformasi “economic and political power […] appears to be associated with loosely defined, somewhat shadowy, and rather fluid clusters and cliques of businessmen, politicians, and officials” (Sidel, 2005, p. 69). Thus, the image of a singular authority is ever just an image, which obscures how states and society are enmeshed and mutually constitute each other (Migdal, 2004). 

Repressive practices, including media censorship, presume the state’s ability to exert control. However, repression is generally a subtler process. A closer look at the Komisi Penyiaran Indonesia (Indonesian Broadcasting Commission, KPI) is useful. Despite being an ostensibly independent regulatory body, it lacks “legislative, executive, and judicial power”,[9] yet elicits significant fear, as N16 informed us. It also retains discursive authority over media workers. By expressly banning positive portrayals of queer individuals in 2016, while still permitting negative coverage (e.g., their victimisation or involvement in “criminal issues”) (N16), queerness is coded as deviance. Queer media representations are subject to sensationalism, associated with crime, misleadingly conflated with cross-dressing, or pathologised using outdated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria (ibid.).

Conversely, state actors may cultivate legitimacy by appealing to the norms of critical journalism, for example by laying claim to objectivity, which remains “the moral norm for reporting” (Broersma, 2010, p. 25). For news to acquire credibility, objectivity and other stylistic aspects must be coupled with the form of the news (p. 20). Regardless of N19’s newsroom’s explicit goal, which is “to see the government’s point of view to tell the [international target] audience”, it still attempts to maintain legitimacy as an objective news source. Objectivity, however, should be distinguished from neutrality, because the aim is still to show “how the government actually accepts […] this criminal code” (N19). Regardless, greater subtlety is demonstrated here. In covering the KUHP, for example, N19’s newsroom did not simply or blatantly praise the bill, but instead also covered the protests against it. Thus,

“[…] we are not taking down or we are not covering up all those protesters, but we acknowledge that we still tell the people that this is being problematic currently.”

(N19)

Similar dynamics abound in data journalism (Kennedy and Engebretsen, 2020, pp. 23-24).[10] While N21, an Indonesian data journalist, usually worked with grassroots-level organisations, this did not preclude her from leading a data journalism workshop with a government institution, the Badan Pusat Statistik (the National Statistic Body, BPS). Hence, the field’s potential is recognised by state authorities as constituting another method of control (Faxon et al., 2022, p. 8). While resistance by local authorities to providing data has abated, there is significant caution around interpreting data. N21 was careful to stress data’s supposed neutrality: “the idea is not to prove [political actors] wrong but to probably tell the public that the data could be played by political actors”. Objectivity and non-partisanship are stressed, even while transparency lends itself to state interests and forestalls critique.

In comparing N19’s and N21’s experiences, we note that the performative aspects of news (its style and form) are deeply embodied across state and society.[11] This is not surprising, since journalism “attempts to construct meaning” through “a set of professional practices, routines and textual conventions” (Broersma, 2010, p. 17). The process of newsmaking is illustrated in the following quote by N19: “[I had] to learn because from what I see, like, the final version of my report, I can learn what kind of words or what kind of phrases that I have to adjust in the next news script that I will write”.

Ultimately, repression is not necessarily overt – hence, the image of the omnipresent censor is misleading. For example, some participants had reduced access to data or politicians (N17), script editors reworked their drafts internally (N19), internal “gatekeepers” policed employees (N16), the threat of punishment deterred foreign journalists from working in fear of their visas being revoked (N1), and complex editorial practices particularly affected younger journalists, whose editors “change all the headlines, […] the angles” (N17). 

A brief trajectory of N18’s career in the Philippines suggests how some of the state practices discussed above play out. His youthful recollection suggests a popular memory of media repression under the Marcos Sr dictatorship: the press, being the only practical way of reaching a mass audience, was subject to the regulations of a press council and government monitoring. But post-dictatorship work was hardly idyllic. N18’s newspaper, for instance, was once shut down through repressive legal means under President Estrada, while his activism for gay rights saw him being threatened with anti-obscenity laws. But note that being outspoken does not automatically turn individuals into threats to ruling regimes. The owners of N18’s current workplace, for example, who are close to the Marcos Jr (2022–present) government, hired him as an editor specifically to be critical, fair, and objective. 

In relation to the law

As our Indonesian participant N22 observed, newsmakers are keenly aware of the law’s limitations in protecting them or offering justice:

If I may be brave enough to say it, it is as if our heads are set free while our tails are clutched.[12]

N22 argued that ostensibly progressive legislation for workers implicitly conflates morality and gendered norms. For example, in Indonesia, only married women qualify for access to reproductive health from their workplaces. Meanwhile, menstrual leave (cuti haid) provisions are rarely used because women fear that non-attendance could affect their productivity or future prospects: even N22 opted not to use hers. Crucially, women’s health rights are not extended to male spouses. Thus, legislation implicitly endorses gendered roles – i.e., only men are breadwinners. 

A Philippine participant, N20, similarly noted the limitations of domestic legislation despite its outwardly progressive appearance. By progressive, we refer to how, after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, “constitutional guarantees on individual freedoms and human rights” were introduced (Deinla, 2014, p. 135). Nevertheless, there has been a significant erosion in freedom of expression in recent years through “lawfare” (Chua, 2023), or “the resort to legal instruments, to the violence inherent in the law, to commit acts of political coercion, even erasure” (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2006, p. 30). Duterte-era cases of cyber libel targeting journalists are clear examples (N27). Besides that, the introduction of the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act which N26’s newsroom was critical of, provided the government with a “legal tool to combat the communist insurgency and Muslim rebellion” in Mindanao (Yabes, 2022). 

Although often abused, the law is not entirely subject to state authority (Pirie, 2013, p. 216). Newsmakers can be both constrained by or use the law in their defence. Its centrality to civic mobilisation can be seen, for example, in the “explosion of law-oriented nongovernmental organisations in the postcolonial world” (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2006, p. 25). This suggests the potential many see in cultivating change through legal processes, such as Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Jakarta in Indonesia and IDEALS in the Philippines, which provide legal aid to newsmakers. Notably, however, Bauman (2012) argues that deploying the discourse of rights often reduces struggle to an individual rather than collective process. These implications are discussed further in Concern 3.

What happens when “controversial” topics are covered? When N1 wrote on the 1965–66 massacres of left-wing and suspected communists across Indonesia (Robinson, 2018), she alluded to facing intimidation and threats. Further, the confluence of politics and capital in Indonesia limits freedom in environmental reporting (N19). In the Philippines, reportage on mining is particularly dangerous, but so too is discussing the human rights situation: N20 received online threats for writing updates about the killing of a human rights worker, even several years after the incident passed. We study how violence unfolds below.

A gendered framing

Indonesia’s AJI recorded a rising trend in violence towards journalists in the past year (Riski, 2023). According to N2, for example, males are exposed to more harm because they are tasked to report on more dangerous topics. This does not mean that gender and sexual minorities do not experience violence, which still takes on various forms, including harassment. N1 noted experiencing more comments about her personal life compared to her male colleagues, N2 experienced rife catcalling during the “Reformasi Dikorupsi” demonstration at the People’s Representative Council, N21 shut down her social media accounts after being doxed, and N17 shared multiple instances of feeling unsafe while working. For example, N17 was made to feel uncomfortable by men whom she never interviewed again, was once publicly berated by an older male journalist, and even recounted the traumatising incident of a “male source that kept forcing me to go with him for an interview alone”. Even when newsmaking institutions claimed to be “feminist or left-leaning”, our participants still encountered prejudice there, as seen in the case of N17’s friend, who quit one such hostile, male-dominated environment. 

Cases of physical gendered assault sometimes have a spatial component. Journalists in different parts of the country experience varying levels of risk, and some localities (e.g., Papua) are arguably subject to subnational authoritarianism (Tapsell, 2013). N22’s colleague’s victimisation was compounded, for example, by her being the sole female worker in her district, while N1 was nearly assaulted by her supposed protector while on assignment in a remote locality. The situation has created a normalised sense of fear about how strangers may react to their newsmaking work, as N17 recounts. “Will they come to my social media and then be mad at me and all that stuff. And I think up until now, many journalists are still feeling the same thing.”(N17).

Similarly, in the Philippines, a patriarchal workplace persists despite strong female representation in newsrooms. N23 noted “a lot of sexual harassment and bullying in the beat system”, and the prevalence of gender-based insults: “you get a lot of hate messages if there are female journalists asserting their opinions online.” N23 attributed the worsening situation under the Duterte administration to its official endorsement of misogyny. Discrimination permeated the lower rungs of government, such as local officials and state forces, which continued to treat female journalists working on the ground poorly (N23). 

Red-tagging

In the Philippines, one particular method of targeting journalists needs further attention – red-tagging. Red-tagging’s effects are gendered: they disproportionately affects women, as N23 and our CPR1 participants note, besides disproportionately affecting marginalised groups in general, whose voices are largely limited to community-centred media (N20, N23). For N23, red-tagging obeys the same logic as the “War on Drugs”: by first naming a specific enemy, violence is then inflicted upon individual journalists and entire networks such as Altermidya, which works closely with grassroots communities. [13]

Red-tagging is the process in which individuals and/or organisations are labelled as leftists, subversives, communists, or terrorists by state actors, including the law enforcement agencies or the military (Simbulan, 2011). This process, which is arguably a form of disinformation, enables the state to target the credibility of critical voices (CPR1). For example, N27’s newsroom’s social media access was restricted for putting out an infographic on the New People’s Army.  

N23 explained that in recent years, red-tagging has been spearheaded by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, formed in 2018 to quell the communist insurgency. In cracking down on any communist or communist-linked activity. N23 held it responsible for affecting the work of journalists and human rights defenders. Enforced alongside the Anti-Terrorism Act, “an intimidating effect among independent journalists” has emerged (N23). Since the practice is tacitly supported by the government, a joint statement released by Press Freedom Monitoring in Southeast Asia’s (PFMSEA) project partners demanded that the Philippine government clearly disavows red-tagging as state policy (Vieira, 2023). 

Mitigation 

The normalisation of attacks, whether online or otherwise, needs to be problematised – as a participant from Tandoc et al.’s (2023) study asks, “should we accept that [violence] comes with the job?” (p. 1208). The need for mitigation should be taken seriously, against doxing or distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks, for example – thus creating a rising demand for digital security (N20, N26, N27).[14] Diverse approaches on the ground have emerged, although these remain centred on prevention. Some strategies exercised by N26’s newsroom include:

“[…] safety nets or security, how to go about with our security concerns, for example, digital security, our communication lines, what communication lines should we maintain and how do we ensure our files and then our interviews, and how do we ensure the safety of everybody outside Davao City.”

(N26)

In conflict regions in northern Luzon, N27 describes the need for strong grassroots networks to keep covering the local community, while also maintaining personal safety. This involved,

“[…] usually join[ing] fact-finding missions. If there are groups or mercy missions, there are groups bringing in medical or whatever assistance to these communities, we join them because this is [practical,] resource-wise and safety-wise, […] ”

(N27)

Since violence and peacebuilding are intertwined processes, progressive legislation must be concerned with (1) preventing personal gendered violence from occurring (i.e., ensuring negative peace) and (2) implementing mechanisms to address underlying systemic and structural challenges (i.e., creating positive peace) (Galtung, 1969, p. 183).  

In Indonesia, while safe houses, legal aid, or psychosocial support can be obtained from separate organisations such as the Crisis Response Management Consortium (N16), some companies have introduced their own standard operating procedures (SOPs), such as setting up internal committees to review cases of sexual violence (N2). AJI is increasingly institutionalising respect for gendered minorities and introducing internal SOPs to address SGBV. To facilitate change amongst mainstream media outlets, AJI is also encouraging the DP to adopt a national mechanism to protect journalists’ safety (CPR1). Such a mechanism must be holistic, i.e., with provisions for preventing harm, protecting journalists, enabling prosecution, and promoting press freedom.

Our participants expressed concerns about the effectiveness of such measures. N22 pointed out that workplace-focused SOPs are rendered ineffective when most perpetrators are reportedly unknown to victims. Even with SOPs in place, some participants feel that their security remains an individual responsibility, rather than an institutional one. N1 recounted having to exercise her own security measures – based on personal working knowledge – when visiting conflict zones.[15]  

Apart from this, economic considerations are also crucial. Who pays the cost of psychological treatment or supporting safe houses? While resource centres exist, the provision of aid is subject to institutional capacity and resources. Further, these are just acts of mitigation, which merely target the symptoms of discrimination but not its structural underpinnings. AJI’s work on providing training to reduce sexist remarks (N22), for example, directly targets the former. Another nuance is that while fear of authority figures exists – given the arrests mentioned above – it appears that the fear may be mutual in some contexts, as suggested by N18’s comment that the Philippine police are also “afraid of media people”. 

Internalising discrimination

Among minorities, the underlying logic of discrimination can be internalised and emerges in the form of negative media representations. Despite internal flexibility to pursue women’s issues, some female media workers reportedly dismissed their sources as genit (flirty) or engaged in victim-blaming – such framings sometimes persisted despite internal editing (N2, N17). Discrimination is also spatially linked: some subnational publications “still use all these women-degrading words and […] ‘flowery language’ to cover rape” (N17). Further, there remains resistance to queer framing: for example, a female editor imposed a heteronormative viewpoint on N16’s article to pathologise queerness. From N23’s perspective in the Philippines, “even the female journalists are not really very aware of the stories that they produce”. 

Financial capital

“[H]ere in the Philippines, we say journalists are killed not just by the bullet, but also by hunger, by lack of economic support.”  

(N27)

The quote above exemplifies the sense of financial precarity felt by most Philippine newsmakers. According to N27, journalists in the Philippines endured “[l]ow wages, no benefits, no hazard pays, no insurance, and all that stuff”. The situation is compounded for female media workers, who generally received lower benefits and wages compared to their male counterparts (N23). During CPR1, participants also brought up how “endo contractualisation”, or short-term employment practices, contributed to the problem, despite some laws being passed under Duterte’s presidency to improve labour rights.[16] There was a normalised risk of losing work at any time, for as N27 noted, “[t]he owners can just sell the newspapers”, Relative silence also surrounded discussions of labour rights as compared to political or civic rights. As N27 continued:

“[W]e can agree with campaigns for truth, campaigns for human rights, campaigns for environment, but we forget the part that economic rights are also human rights. And it’s very hard to partner with media owners […] They are the ones violating the economic rights […]

(N27)

Ironically, ostensibly progressive newsrooms failed to platform their workers’ voices, and the censorship of workplace strikes persisted because media owners were afraid of similar occurrences in their own newsrooms (N20). Thus, “threats are coming from the owners themselves” (N3). In facing such challenges, N20 insisted on journalists openly advocating for issues such as unionisation: “[W]ho will advocate for these issues if not for us?”[17] Further, some media organisations on the periphery face pressing issues (e.g., managing finances), and therefore neglect gendered issues (CPR1). 

Our Indonesian participants also concurred on the pertinence of financial constraints. N17 noticed how economic pressures forced some news organisations to saddle workers with more responsibilities amidst increasing workplace precarity. For progressive newsrooms in dire financial straits, reducing both working hours and journalists’ wages seemed necessary (N2), although the underlying issues around funding remain unresolved. There was also a limit to how far journalists could progress in their careers, as noted by N2, who also freelanced to supplement her income. Seemingly trivial problems may further compound freelancers’ financial precarity (e.g., complicated disbursement and payment systems, difficult paymasters) (N1). Few graduates from journalism programmes – whose cohort sizes already appeared to be declining – achieve workplace seniority. Unsurprisingly, some female journalists chose to leave for the public relations or content-writing fields instead.

How are the political and economic aspects of media ownership intertwined? Our CPR1 participants shared some insights. In Indonesia, there is a lack of transparency and accountability around ownership by political party members, with little information on how queer groups or religious minorities are targeted as a result. Further, the entry of media-owning “oligarchs” into politics, whom Evi Mariani dubs “politically wired tycoons”, conflate media, political and economic influence (New Naratif, 2023). Conversely, in the Philippines, information about media ownership is fairly accessible through the Media Ownership Monitor. Instead, the problem is conceptual: the implications of ownership are not easily understood by the public.

Sociocultural capital 

Capital can be expressed in social and cultural terms, manifesting in overlapping domains of skills, knowledge, networks, and connections (Bourdieu, 1984).[18] Consider how a prospective employee with access to preexisting networks and connections would benefit their company in turn (N2). The prospective employee – who possesses high sociocultural capital – would most likely be hired over someone with fewer connections. Economic privilege does confer easier access to the skills, knowledge, networks, and resources needed to become successful newsmakers. Hence, N17’s observation that in Indonesia, “those who can thrive in journalism […] are people who have safety nets from their parents”, is apt. 

A closer look at Philippine student presses provides an example of how relatively privileged spaces ensure access to such capital. N23 remembered how, during her student days, they would invite practising journalists to train them on “basics like news ethics, news writing, feature writing”. Further, as N20 recalled, inviting trainers from mainstream media gave students the advantage of knowing “the ins and outs of the newsroom” even before formally beginning work, and their trainers could also open doors within the industry. 

In the face of institutional precarity, many newsmakers recognise the need to build individual resilience. N17’s Indonesian newsroom is a good example. Because of a high attrition rate, it lacked internal seniority and hence allowed workers more autonomy. Their relative freedom was thus made possible by a lack of job security, which actually opened greater opportunities for its workers. In fact, the newsroom gained a reputation for training emerging and highly mobile journalists who could also find work internationally. The trade-off, of course, is that the loss of job security correlates with increased marketable skills, consistent with Bauman’s (2012) argument that “liquid modernity” favours smaller and more flexible workforces and workplaces.

The increased precarity of labour also favours workers who espouse a neoliberal subjectivity, i.e., the “moral responsibility to self-direct her or his life within the ‘marketplace’ of social life” (Pollack and Rossiter, 2010, p. 354). While such individuals may partake in the global newsmaking economy more easily – usually by fighting hard to get ahead – they remain within the confines of a fundamentally exploitative environment. 

Indeed, the freelance newsmaker embodies such liquidity: a flexible, marketable, and autonomous unit of labour. N1, for example, fought particularly hard for bylines. Without the protection of formal employment frameworks, we argue that there is an increased need to gain the recognition and reputation crucial for sustaining freelance careers. Despite having the skills, knowledge, and experience to work with international news outlets, N1 still found it hard to get jobs because of her assertiveness: instead, these outlets seemed to “only hire Indonesian journalists as fixers” to merely assist foreign journalists in chasing stories. In short, relative privilege, while helpful, does not always offer protection from precarity.

Language constitutes another axis of sociocultural capital – especially fluency in English. N17 observed that fluent journalists could better access international opportunities. This is not to say that non-fluent newsmakers lack opportunities – they are instead limited to a different audience: N23 noted how business and marketing considerations appear to code media representations and news style by both language and class in the Philippines.

“[It]’s widely believed that the tabloids are being read and consumed by those in maybe the ‘CDE’ [lower socioeconomic, vernacular-speaking] classes, and then maybe the ‘AB’ [higher socioeconomic, English-speaking] classes are the ones consuming or reading [the broadsheets…] Maybe the students and intellectuals [… and] the politicians read the broadsheets. So there’s also a different approach to the news. Not just the language, but also in terms of sensationalism.”

(N23)

N18 concurred on this point – local English media consumption panders to an elite Philippine readership. However, there are some nuances to consider. Among some indigenous communities, colonisation and proselytisation ensured that some were more fluent in English or their local languages than Filipino (N27). Hence, N27’s outfit emphasised multilingualism to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Two subtler explorations of sociocultural capital are as follows. Having the privilege of working in a relatively flexible workplace allowed N21 the opportunity to engage in more data journalism work in Indonesia. In time, she was recognised as an expert, thus allowing her greater access to grant and funding opportunities. Such privilege may be spatially and technically encoded: the higher financial pressures on journalists in smaller districts and the need for a basic technical skillset limits the field’s openness to potential practitioners. A different, but perhaps subtler, dynamic can be observed in N18’s situation. By refusing to accept bribes from various actors, he arguably accrued greater sociocultural capital: he was seen as being more trustworthy, thus gaining allies across political divides in the Philippines.

Speculations on queer capital

Several queer experiences are worth noting in detail. Continuing with N18’s story, being an openly gay activist and newsmaker conferred certain advantages in the field. Even Duterte once verbally supported the activism of N18 and his allies. N18’s influence even inspired young Filipino journalists to be more open about their sexual orientation. An interesting parallel is noted among Philippine “political trolls”: Ong and Cabañes (2018) observe that queer “trolls” are regarded as an asset in furthering disinformation campaigns, prized for their supposed ability to “guarantee vivaciousness and “spirit” to the social media accounts and campaigns they handle” (p. 23).

Here, queer capital (Lim, 2018) offers an analytical framework for these seemingly divergent experiences. Building on Bourdieu’s argument, we can understand it as the exploitation of queerness in different contexts. Although largely drawing on the Singaporean experience, Eng-Beng Lim argument that the deployment of “creative technology, the open employment of gay individuals in government agencies, and the profitability of pink-dollar industries in the form of gay and lesbian tourism, entrepreneurship, and consumerism” (p. 96) enables the open exploitation of queer individuals is also relevant here. Consider how N18 was sometimes still excluded from formal newsmaking, ostensibly on account of his activism and political affiliations, being relegated to providing “opinions” instead: classifying articles as “opinions” is itself a form of marginalisation (FGD1). As Broersma (2010) and Mateus (2018) note, “opinions” are the opposite of “facts”. Thus, N18’s newsroom benefits by accruing queer capital through his presence, while N18 is excluded from formal newsmaking.

Not all regional queer experiences are identical, of course: N18’s journey contrasts sharply with the marginalisation of N16 and their fellow queer newsmakers in Indonesia. It may also be exceptional. Perhaps N18 could only exercise such agency because he studied in an elite university with ties to the powers-that-be, had professionally worked with people from across the political divide, and insisted on the supremacy of codes of conduct. Therefore, the dynamics by which queer capital unfold contextually are worth interrogating further.


Gender norms

One expectation that needs to be further considered among Indonesian newsmakers is marriage and having children. The majority of N2’s female colleagues remained unmarried, while N1 observed that relatively few female workers were able to accumulate significant years of experience. N1 also brought up the example of a married female media worker who achieved success only because she had a supportive spouse. Factors discouraging mothers from working include caring duties, unsuitable working hours, and a lack of parent-friendly facilities (N1, N2, N22). Arguably, we can infer that marriage is a significant factor behind the attrition rate of female newsmakers.  Implicitly, the newsmaking field favours the retention of privileged and unmarried (read: young) women – who are in turn marginal to male predominance in the field. 

COVID-19

The effects of COVID-19 were deeply unequal, according to our Indonesian participants. Poor working conditions were generally exacerbated, in line with worldwide trends (Oxfam International, 2020). Trans individuals, who already suffered significant violence, were particularly affected during lockdowns (N16), while N17 experienced mental health challenges. While her workplace “offered psychological services and stuff like that”, N17’s “friends needed more serious treatments.” Since mental health fees were not always paid by employers, these were either covered out-of-pocket or by journalist associations (CPR1). Financial struggles faced by companies also translated into an increased threat of retrenchment, which N17 perceived to be almost as stressful as actual retrenchment, leading to her eventual resignation. It is also worth considering how practical spatial difficulties were compounded by lockdowns, which effectively cut off localities where non-digital communication was predominant (N19). But sometimes, the pandemic did offer an opportunity to offset gendered inequalities. Remote work, for instance, allowed female media workers to avoid abuses of power during in-person meetings, and allowed them to maintain productivity despite having caring duties (CPR1). 

Digital poverty

Digitalisation might negate the authority of “traditional” media gatekeepers in Indonesia, such as the DP (N22), since alternative media has become increasingly dominant (N2). Although seemingly democratic, this change could potentially increase the digital poverty gap. Online news is also less accessible to digitally poor communities,[19] such as in the Philippines, where N27’s newsroom risked alienating the indigenous community that it primarily served, since this community lacked internet access. Digitalisation also amplifies disinformation, which is further worsened by income inequalities (Gianan, 2020, p. 19). By diverting the resources and capacity of newsmakers and consumers, newsmakers in the subnational periphery are further neglected (N20). These communities are largely represented by local “community outfits” with a “very limited reach” to begin with (N23). We also note that social media platforms have become more prominent as news sources in the wake of COVID-19 (CPR1), where the news is presented in more digestible units of information, which may be simultaneously beneficial (i.e., improving public accessibility) and disruptive (e.g., possibly weaponised for the purposes of dis/misinformation). Thus, the work of fact-checkers, such as Vera Files, is indispensable. 

Lessons learned

Having outlined the many issues that newsmakers face, we reflect on our participants’ experiences, outlining lessons learned and some recommendations.

Throughout Series 4, we consider representation in two senses: (1) the involvement of marginalised communities directly in the process of newsmaking and (2) representation of these communities in published media.[20] 

We recommend that media organisations be more selective during the hiring process to encourage diversity. Our CPR1 participants suggested, for example, filtering or conducting background checks on potential hires to encourage increased diversity in newsmaking perspectives, rather than just focusing on numerical representation (e.g., hiring X number of female workers). Varied areas of specialisation, types of marginality, and other lived experiences are necessary to consider. Diversity should not be limited to gender and sexuality because, after all, marginalised individuals may also perpetuate mainstream perspectives. 

Some actions already exist to institutionally improve media representations. In Indonesia, AJI prepared guidelines on how media actors could report on SGBV and diversity, but ensuring compliance remained a challenge (CPR1). In the Philippines, while gender-sensitivity workshops remained lacking (CPR1), N26’s newsroom did conduct gender sensitivity and gender orientation workshops. Such work is always an un-learning process to undo general resistance to queer framing, gender-sensitive language, and the use of pronouns remains (CPR1). It would also prevent newsmakers from inadvertently sideline marginalised voices, as exemplified by N23’s realisation that “[…] even among ourselves, there are some instances when there’s a whole documentary and every interview is a male, […] we didn’t intend to do that, but because maybe we weren’t cautious enough, we let that happen […]” (N23).

Student journalists have the potential to offer fresh and transformative perspectives. N23 regarded student presses as playing an important role in the Philippine media landscape, where they prosper despite censorship by educators. According to N16, Indonesian student-run media organisations were also often more ideologically progressive than mainstream media platforms. Renewed activism, for instance, came with coverage of the protests against the KUHP and Omnibus Law (CPR1), as well as sexual assault against “Agni”, a pseudonym for a student from Universitas Gadjah Mada. “Agni’s” case went viral due to timely reportage by the university’s student press, BPPM Balairung (Balairung Press, 2018; Muryanto and Mariani, 2019), which sparked broad discussions highlighting the urgent need to prevent and address sexual violence in higher education institutions. Arguably, this contributed to the passing of the sexual violence bill in April 2022, which the women’s movement had long pushed for before the #MeToo movement (CPR1). 

Unfortunately, there is minimal support for student journalists. In Indonesia, AJI explained how student journalists were still considered outsiders in the mainstream media ecosystem (CPR1). There is a need to improve connections between media companies and campus presses to support future journalists, such as by providing media ethics training. Lastly, there is a need to address other risks commonly associated with media work which deter student journalists from joining the industry, such as long work hours, lack of seniority, and low wages.[21] Just as importantly, many Indonesian student press alumni decide against becoming professional journalists because they know that media outlets are usually driven by oligarchs – after all, they do not want to be sellouts. Overall media freedom is thus necessary to attract potential journalists into the profession.

Systematic mobilisation requires gendered data, which is currently often omitted or inaccessible. For years, the Philippine Statistics Agency “didn’t have that basic question on the survey: are you a male or female labourer?” (N23). N20 suggested that this lack of gender statistics may be correlated with the lack of gendered legislation. Similarly, in Indonesia, gendered data is also inadequate. NGOs working on gender issues had to make their own estimates (N22). Even when there is data on gender, most ignore the existence of nonbinary individuals (N16). To create equitable legislation and policies – which properly account for marginalised individuals – we first insist on collecting comprehensive and inclusive gendered statistics. 

The denial of labour rights and practices such as red-tagging implicitly defend oppressive economic systems. Hence, there is a need to curtail abuses, close legal loopholes, and ensure workers’ rights to security of tenure. When we think of activism, one focus that comes to mind is legal action. In this effort, a key tactic, especially when fighting back against accusations that activists are importing “foreign” or “Western” values, is vernacularisation. Rights must be adapted and contextually understood through “a series of numerous, repetitive, focused actions” to “appropriate and adopt international human rights ideas and norms for a local audience” (Bon and Wong, 2023, p. 313). 

Meanwhile, collective, labour-based mobilisation is dependent upon how well newsmakers can organise themselves (CPR1). Thus, interpersonal relations are crucial to consider. Even if people organise around a specific identity, for example, these groups are not homogenous or free from their own internal inequalities – a gay superior may still bully a gay employee. Therefore, worker-based organisations (e.g., unions) should be more broad-based. Serikat SINDIKASI in Indonesia, for example, which represents both media workers and the creative industry, also offers greater opportunities for collective mobilisation. 

We note that mutual aid for capacity-building is inseparable from mobilisation. N1 emphasised the need to empower other freelancers to defend their rates. N22 suggested how collaborations between different newsrooms in Indonesia had a salutary role in her work. For instance, uploading an article simultaneously across various platforms by different partner organisations helps to maximise exposure. While the work of groups like AJI is essential in the local media landscape, the risk of burnout is inescapable. Already, the demanding conditions required to participate in AJI’s work had deterred recruits (N22). A strong spirit of volunteerism is only a temporary solution to incentivise participation in the movement, while a permanent solution must include concrete institutional changes. 

In these efforts, various networks can become platforms for solidarity and resource-sharing amongst geographically scattered journalists (N17, N21). International connections are not uncommon — N1 had both Indonesian and Philippine connections, N21’s were angled towards the United States, while the NUJP was connected to the International Association of Women in Radio & Television (N20, N23).

Egalitarian structures enable media workers to work in safe and supportive environments. How is it possible to remain a business (which necessarily implies a hierarchy) while being egalitarian? 

In the Philippines, N27’s identity as an indigenous female newsmaker was not a hindrance because “from the very beginning, gender roles and gender equalities [were] quite advanced” in her newsroom. Meanwhile, N23 suggested that alternative media were generally more conscious about gendered identities, having platformed queer workers and introduced gendered mechanisms or policies. N26 mentioned how some workspaces actively tried to build flexibility into their workers’ schedules to accommodate newsmakers with caring duties.

Encouraging dialogue is crucial: the management at N2’s alternative media site was open to receiving opinions and protests from its staff. Female leaders should also be “given the chance to set the direction of the news organisation and to craft […] policies” (N23). But change may be elusive unless it is institutionalised. While N26 was generally pessimistic about the possibility of overturning societal patriarchal structures, she was at least confident about exercising good, collective leadership. Her newsroom planned to “eventually innovate a system that would still inculcate collective leadership”, where “[…] we could establish committees, and that committee would be […] dynamic so that people could discuss things of value in that committee. […] and then also setting up a senior junior partnership in terms of coverage so that it also involves training and honing the potential of young journalists.” (N26)

Financial difficulties may be compounded for freelancers or independents, who are generally excluded from security nets. A key aspect of ensuring a robust newsmaking ecosystem is ensuring that workers are decently paid, thus resolving tendencies towards “unethical […] practices because they themselves don’t receive right or just compensation” (N20). AJI has researched standard rates in Indonesia (N17) while in the Philippines, legislative measures include the new House Bill No. 454 mandating rules around wages (N20). But wages are only part of the discussion: we also need to ask what humane working hours and aspects of economic security such as reproductive health, social security, and insurance coverage look like (N20).

Further, what incentives exist for publishers or media owners to listen to their workers’ demands? This discussion is complicated by broader financial and operational difficulties. To sustain current newsmaking practices, there is a concerning dependency on grant-funding among newsmakers, and by extension adherence to donor requirements or interests (N2). What we need to ask is how workers and institutions can adopt alternative business models to (1) develop a better “product” which does not rely on grants and (2) develop improved funding models. 

Here, public funding[22] requires a media ecosystem with broad public support for the media. It also requires ground-up trust- and community-building – thus giving legacy media an advantage over grassroots groups. A possible solution may be tied to ownership. N27 has suggested, for example, how cooperative ownership might be considered as an alternative to corporate models altogether.

Finally, it is crucial to consider the involvement of the community – whether as sources, collaborators, or consumers. When working with marginalised communities, “journalists should strive not to report on, but to report with communities” by engaging in empowerment journalism (Lefkowich et al., 2019). There is a need to grow closer to the grassroots by understanding their precise contexts, such as in covering the oft-misunderstood indigenous Lumad school system in the Philippines (N26). Newsrooms can also be supported by their communities in non-monetary ways. For N27, rural community support came in the form of payment-in-kind (e.g., farmers’ produce, volunteering to distribute the paper). Back “[…] when we were still printing, communities would send us grain payment for the copies. […] I think that is very telling of how the people can support their own newspaper.” Such support suggests a recognition within communities of the importance of having a local press.

Conclusion

In analysing three concerns – the state, violence, and capital – we draw some lessons for building better environments for newsmakers of marginalised genders and sexualities in Indonesia and the Philippines. However, our research is not the last word. In Indonesia at least, studies on the media ecosystem generally still lack a gendered perspective, while minority perspectives are subject to self-silencing (CPR1), thus suggesting the need for local researchers themselves to focus on this field. 

There is also a need to puncture journalism’s problematic and pervasive myths: N20 remarked about once wanting to “experience the daily grind, how they do it in the field.” Moreover, N23’s colleagues, despite voicing their disappointment with the field, persisted because they saw it as “a commitment” and “a vocation”. We should consider how the “decline of the [traditional] newsroom itself is not the same thing as the decline of media”, but rather, need to recognise how the exploitative “newsroom culture venerated by legacy journalists is precisely what needs to die so that the industry itself can survive” (Cyca, 2023).

Regardless of the systemic and structural factors weighing down upon newsmakers, maintaining freedom remains an agentic and performative process. As N23 reflected, press freedom “still exists not because it’s guaranteed or it’s given by the government, but because the practitioners themselves are working towards a better space, towards a more democratic space […] it’s something that we have to keep asserting”.

Prepared by Wai Liang Tham, with help from Azida Azmi, Kanina Kalyana, Dhania Salsha, and Song Eraou. We have also opted for a webpost rather than a PDF document, and will be using this format for future publications, moving forward.

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Participant/community peer reviewersLocationInterview*
N1Indonesia20 January 2022
N2Indonesia3 February 2022
N16Indonesia18 October 2022
N17Indonesia31 October 2022
N18Philippines5 December 2022
N19Indonesia9 December 2022
N20Philippines17 January 2023
N21Indonesia2 February 2023
N22Indonesia20 February 2023
N23Philippines21 February 2023
N26Philippines15 March 2023
N27Philippines17 March 2023
CPR1Online (with participants from Indonesia and the Philippines)8 September 2023

Table 1: Series 4, Publication 3 research participants

As a “small-n” study, our research is necessarily selective, although to counterbalance the limitations, our semi-structured interviews (approx. 1–1.25 hours each) have been conducted as in-depth as possible. For confidentiality, our limited ethnographic approach does not collect private demographic data (e.g., age, ethnicity, roles, caregiving status, period worked in media, lists of questions asked). We caution that because some previous participants have expressed unease at signing consent sheets, gathering more specific information becomes more difficult. However, this study may serve as a jumping-off point for activists, researchers, and media workers themselves to contextualise their work accordingly.

We also note that the translation and deployment of terminology related to gender and sexuality is important. To represent these concepts regionally, they must be fully understood in their respective regional languages. 

Engendering Media:
Insights from Indonesia and the Philippines
Media Freedom Insights Series 4 Publication No. 3

Publication Year 2023

Author Wai Liang Tham

Editors New Naratif’s Research Department

Academic Peer Reviewer Dr Nicole CuUnjieng Aboitiz

Art Director Ellena Ekarahendy

Graphic Designer Mufqi Hutomo

Illustrator Denise Rafaeli Cadorniga

Funding The Media Freedom in Southeast Asia Research Project is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, Grant No. 2020-08984.

Publisher New Naratif is a movement for democracy, freedom of information and freedom of expression in  Southeast Asia. We aim to make Southeast Asians proud of our region, our shared culture and our  shared history. We fight for the dignity and freedom of the Southeast Asian people by building a  community of people across the region to imagine and articulate a better Southeast Asia.

Media Freedom Insights is New Naratif’s collection of reports dedicated to the  fight for media freedom in Southeast Asia. The series takes an approach that centres media workers at  the heart of the region’s media landscape. The reports housed by the series cover a range of topics, from  the challenges faced by media workers in Southeast Asia, to their aspirations for a freer media space, to potential pathways for collective action.

This research report, excluding its illustrations, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this licence, visit creativecommons.org.

All illustrations are property of their respective illustrators.

Please cite this report as Tham, Wai Liang. 2023. “Engendering Media: Insights from Indonesia and the Philippines.” Media Freedom Insights Series 4 Publication No. 3. New Naratif.

  1. Marasigan (2022), abstracting from Colin Hay, defines agency as “the actions or conducts of humans and their capacity to take action and achieve their intentions consciously, and implies ‘a sense of free will, choice or autonomy’”. ↩︎
  2. See our Series 4, Publication 1 report (p. 10) for a fuller discussion of newsmaking. ↩︎
  3. See the Appendix above for details on our methodology. Names and workplaces are withheld for confidentiality. Major claims are attributed to participants (e.g., N1, N2). We also ran a community peer review session, and our findings are attributed to CPR1. ↩︎
  4. Subnational media organisations are not necessarily physically limited — N27’s newsroom in the Philippines catered towards an indigenous readership and back when it still existed in print, with copies sent even as far as Hong Kong, along the overseas foreign worker migration route. ↩︎
  5. See Hansson and Weiss (2023) for an open-access study of regional civil society. ↩︎
  6. The ongoing developments in Indonesian politics, particularly a rift within Widodo’s government (Yuniar, 2023), are not discussed here. ↩︎
  7. It is useful to compare this narrow official scope to more inclusive regional definitions. The NUJP, for example, broadly defines media workers as “those engaged in news gathering, writing, editing, copyediting or other editorial activities or processing for a newspaper, magazine, or periodical of general circulation, or radio station or television channel, or network, or online outfit.” ↩︎
  8. In Philippine media studies, significant work on gender exists. We recommend looking at Plaridel as a good starting point. ↩︎
  9. The KPI’s duties have been pared down by state institutions such as the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (Singarimbun et al., 2002). Its initial ethos of democratisation has been eroded, including through the influence of private interests (ibid.; Sukmawati and Armando, 2019). ↩︎
  10. Local research into sexual violence on campuses benefitted from marshalling quantitative and qualitative data (N21). ↩︎
  11. Performativity and performance should not be conflated. As van der Watt (2017), paraphrasing Judith Butler’s distinction, explains, there is a distinction between a singular act (performance) and a process of becoming (performativity). ↩︎
  12. N22’s original quote follows: “Jadi kalau saya berani bilang bahwa kebebasan kita itu ibaratnya kepala kita dibebaskan tapi ekor kita tetap dipegang.” ↩︎
  13. Similarly, Tandoc et al. (2023) found that “online harassment against journalists follows a systematic process that starts from the top, is followed through by a network of social media personalities and an army of trolls, and then completed by ordinary social media users” (p. 1204). ↩︎
  14. One key shift has been the preference for Signal rather than less-secure communication channels (e.g., WhatsApp) (N20). ↩︎
  15. Some steps appear counterintuitive — e.g., avoiding traditional security measures, such as police or military escorts in West Papua, which can be more dangerous compared to travelling with locals. ↩︎
  16. While the Labor Code of the Philippines expressly prohibits “labour-only” contracting, independent contracting practices are legal and prevalent in the current work and labour landscape (CPR1). ↩︎
  17. The marginalisation of labour is a significant concern for N23, whose work emphasises economic difficulties amongst marginalised workers (e.g., fisherfolk, farmers). For N23, “we can’t discuss economic issues in isolation, but to treat them very much as human issues.” ↩︎
  18. Bourdieu makes technical distinctions between social and cultural capital, but these categories do overlap. ↩︎
  19. A brief introduction to digital poverty can be found from the NCFE, and is available here. ↩︎
  20. See our prior report (pp. 23–24) for a more detailed discussion on representations. ↩︎
  21. These insights were gathered from Oktaria Asmarani, New Naratif’s Democratic Participation Researcher, who was also previously with BPPM Balairung. ↩︎
  22. Being publicly funded does not necessarily mean that an organisation is state-owned, is a state broadcaster, or is not independent. The BBC is a useful example here. ↩︎

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