Coronavirus News Asia

Why Indonesia can’t close its virus credibility gap

JAKARTA – Something is missing from Indonesia’s otherwise blanket coverage of the coronavirus pandemic that may go a long way towards explaining why there is a yawning gap between the official statistics and public perceptions of how bad the health crisis really is.

In essence, it is good old-fashioned journalism, often barely recognizable from what its older practitioners like to call the “salad days” of the now much-maligned craft.

In its place in today’s Indonesia is a vacuum filled by wildly-speculative modelling, simpler guesswork, misleading headlines, speculation and half-baked conspiracy theories, which border on the ridiculous but which Indonesians often seem to prefer over hard fact.

When the Reuters news agency ran an “exclusive” earlier this month reporting that the number of burials around Jakarta’s cemeteries was significantly higher than the number of officially recognized Covid-19 victims, the story caused a stir.

But why? It should have been one of the first things an Indonesian news editor or a reporter should have thought of if there were questions about the veracity of official numbers – as there still are.

It wasn’t a state secret. Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan was well aware of the anomaly, even though many of the dead were only suspect cases. But he hadn’t mentioned it and, in a country where autopsies are rare, nobody had bothered to ask.

When there’s a gap like this, it must be filled by convincing anecdotal evidence, which comes not from social media, but rather from journalists with the initiative, the drive and the news sense to do the job on the street.

A man walks past a mural depicting the Covid-19 coronavirus in Surabaya, April 6, 2020. Photo: AFP/Juni Kriswanto

That is not happening. One Indonesian editor says it stems from laziness and a lack of professional training. “The owners are modern businessmen who are only in it for a quick buck,” he says. “They don’t care about the craft.”

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