Interview - Keith Loveard


Interview: Keith Loveard, Reporter & Publisher, Laksamana.net & AsiaMad:
6th
September 2003


In keeping with Media Man Australia's tradition of tackling any subject, we explore the world of publishing in the politically sensitive Indonesia.

Keith Loveard is an accomplished reporter / journalist who now makes Indonesia his home.

Keith discusses his background, politics, media, technology and more in this unique, interesting and exclusive interview.

What's your background?

I started off at Daily Telegraph in Sydney as a cadet after I dropped out of University. I didn't have the faintest idea what I was doing, and really fell into journalism. I spent a year at the Tele, was going go back to University, didn't get around to it (story of my academic life - I finally got my BA 20 years later) and picked up a job in the trade press, at Yaffa. It wasn't a glamorous job but it taught the principles of production. After that I went overseas, bummed around a bit, then came back to Australia at age 26 with a wife and a young child and no money. I went to work at AAP on their overseas desk. AAP was a place a lot of people used as a staging ground until they picked up something more relaxed, but I was there for six years. I learned to write on the desk there, dealing with some of the world's best writers' copy, and doing it with precision and speed. I'm also grateful for the help I got from some of my older colleagues, not least Richard Moore, who I worked with later at ABC Radio. Dick was a tough co-worker who demanded extraordinary high standards, and I learned a lot from him. I also learned a lot about managing people, which was a whole lot harder than I thought it was going to be. I started at AAP as a C+ in the old grade system and made A grade in 18 months. After a while I went bush. Story of my life, really. Then at the ABC I had some great experiences, on the overnight foreign news desk the night People's Power happened in Manila, covering the death in custody at Brewarrina in NSW that sparked the Royal Commission. I did a lot more reporting on Aboriginal issues out of Darwin in the late 80s but I also got the chance to go into Indonesia as it was just starting to open up again after the so-called Jenkins' affair. And here I still am.

What are your aims and objectives?

Well, I've been very lucky. My ambition when I was younger was to be a foreign correspondent and to write a book. Now I've done both, as correspondent in Jakarta for Asiaweek for seven and a half years, and the book, while it's not what you'd call a best seller, is in the National Library and that's some sort of legacy (Suharto, Indonesia's Last Sultan, Singapore, 1998). With those two in the bag, well, I set myself another goal, to do a little spin doctoring, and that's happening as well.

What motivates you?

I'm a workaholic so it doesn't take much to get me moving. As long as it's professional, I'm happy, though I'm not that keen on purely commercial gambits. I spend a while in my youth trying to get out of journalism but came back eventually for two reasons, first that there wasn't anything else much I could do, and second that there is a demand for information that needs to be filled in a constructive and intelligent way . I have tended to work in places where I have been able to avoid sensationalism. The former Indonesian Consul in Darwin who helped me get into Jakarta, Joseph Halim, told me before I came to Indonesia that what the government wanted - and then of course it was the Suharto regime - was objectivity and balance. That suited me fine, and Asiaweek was a magazine that was better to work for in this respect than an Australian daily would have been, for instance, because I wasn't caught up in the bilateral relationship.

How has the internet helped you achieve your personal and business goals?

I've been playing with the internet now for over two years and thinking and planning with friends for longer. I watched the great Nasdaq crash and the collapse of all the start-ups with interest. I think it's still very difficult to finance a website and I tend to treat the internet as a very specific media that can perform some roles extremely well but doesn't have the impact that other media forms have. It's great for data storage and it's a great source of information because of it. What I have learned is where I fit, which is content management, and in that sense the net is not much different from traditional publishing.

What are the addresses of the websites you created and contribute to, and what is the function of each website?

From the discussions I had with friends I started asiamad.com but I was the only one who ever did any work on it or paid the bills. I guess I was also optimistic that it would serve as a vehicle for civil society discussion within Indonesia, and that has never looked like happening, let alone from elsewhere in Asia. There is still no single site for discussion of a lot of the issues that I still believe matter. Women's rights, broad environmental issues, trade issues etc could all gain from a forum that the internet could serve. Too idealistic, I guess. But Asiamad taught me what the internet is and how you can use it, and that has paid off.

Not too long after I started Asiamad, I was asked to take over editorial control of Laksamana.net, which I've now been running for two years. I don't think there would be much argument that it's the best source of free news on Indonesia on the web. It's under-staffed and under-resourced but you can't fault the commitment of the owners, Laksamana Sukardi and Mochtar Buchori, for continuing to fund such a service. It has very little hope of ever making any income so it's very much a public service that they think is important to maintain.

The nicest compliment we received recently - and it mentioned both Asiamad and Laks.net - was to say we were the Economist of Indonesia.

I am also working on concord-review.com This is a subscription-based service operated by the Concord security consulting group. Security is a very big issue in Indonesia and I apply the same principles I learned at AAP and the ABC - objective, solid reporting.

What off-line business activities do you partake in?

I engage in more off-line business than on-line. I left journalism full time in 1997, just at the beginning of the economic crisis, mainly because I just lost the enthusiasm for doing it, though I still retain great pride in having 'served' as a hack. The timing of leaving a well-paid job was not the best but I had a house and the basics of existence and didn't owe any money, still don't. A part of the process was learning what I could do as a business operator, what my skills were, what I was selling. I did a fair bit of freelance journalism, writing copy for advertorials for a lot of Indonesian corporates, some low-level public relations. Along the way I decided what Indonesia needed was some efficient information infrastructure and tried to convince government it needed it. Abdurrhaman Wahid, who was an old friend from Asiaweek days, wanted it but didn't have any money. Then I ran into Rini Soewandi, the current Industry and Trade Minister, and I've now been working with her for getting on for a year. I do a lot of speech writing and infrastructure development as some trade promotion stuff for her.

Does the Indonesian government feel threatened by any of the information you publish?

Times have changed and I've moved on. Indonesia has become a lot more mature about criticism, after all, they get so much of it. Laksamana.net doesn't have any funding for investigative reporting and tends to concentrate on covering the basics and a level of analysis, but relies mainly on published sources in the English and Indonesian language. I have to acknowledge a debt to the Joyo News Service, published out of a New York apartment by an Indonesia veteran who was briefly ruined by Indonesia's remarkably cruel business elite. It's a service that has pretty well everything on Indonesia that's published in English and what we try to do in a way is add some value, particularly in local political analysis and geopolitical comment. But we couldn't survive without Joyo.

Back in the old Suharto days it was of course a different story. Again, working for a magazine based in Asia meant there was a level of understanding of the way Asian societies worked. Asiaweek was happy to dress a story in color and anecdote and the tough part of the story you sort of tucked away in the middle. It was a very Indonesian way of dealing with the oppression of Suharto as well. In those days you'd have to read a whole story in the Indonesian press and the interesting part was always buried down the bottom of the page. The story still got told and Asians knew to look for it: anywhere but the top of the report or screaming at you from a headline.

In one way the Indonesian government is very happy with the material I produce. As part of my work with the Department of Industry and Trade I produce a weekly "review" that gets sent out by email to the trade attaches around the world. It's the first time they've had a service that tells them what's going on at home, which is important in their trade negotiations. It's very opinion-free, simple summaries of what happened. We also publish Indonesia-solutions.org which has both English and Indonesia pages, produced by two local staffers. This site is starting to generate interaction with the community, people with business problems and the idea is to build this with other resources to provide a solid internet infrastructure base for the Department.

Do you consider yourself a whistle blower?

Not at Laksamana.net because we simply don't have the resources. We've got attitude but we simply don't have the staff to do much really original work, although Hendrajit, our political correspondent, an Indonesian journalist I've known for a decade, does some excellent background material.

I'm always open to whistle blowing but you have to get the facts very straight. Indonesian journalism in its current form is very free - to the point that there are libels every day of the week. Dealing with the big fish is not a lightweight assignment and you have to respect people's right to innocence unless proven guilty. I recall in 1995 doing a cover story for Asiaweek that questioned whether the Lippo group's investments in land were soundly based. In retrospect it doesn't sound too dramatic, but at that stage they were spending very big in Indonesia and Hong Kong. We were extremely careful with the report and I heard afterwards that James Riady pulled a lot of top lawyers in from Singapore to go through the story with a fine toothcomb but they couldn't find anything that was not factually based or reasonable comment. I ran into James at one stage and he told me they nearly sued. My reply was obvious enough, that there were no grounds to do so. He declined my offer of an interview, probably not surprising since he was in trouble in the US for illegal campaign contributions at the time. I met him again recently and he's finally forgiven me!

Describe freedom of the press?

Freedom of the press to me is the right to report and to express opinions with the rider that a degree of responsibility is a part of the ideal recipe. Again, the Indonesian press provides an example where there is a lot of freedom and little responsibility so that a lot of people's reputations get dragged through the mud. Freedom of the press shouldn't only mean the freedom to be critical, but should also include a constructive role in society.

What is your political persuasion, and why?

I have to say I'm a democratic socialist. In non-political terms, I'm a humanist. I believe people have the right to decent lives, wherever possible.

What have been the highlights of your career?

Well, the end of Vietnam and Year 0 in Cambodia, plus of course Watergate when I was at AAP, People's Power in Manila while I was at the ABC, together with the Brewarrina death in custody. In Indonesia, well, lots of highs, the June 1996 attack on Megawati's Democratic Party office in Jakarta was one, when a major thoroughfare got burned and trashed, then through all the riots in 1998 and onward.

What will the future on online publishing and broadcasting bring?

I'm not sure the internet will revolutionize the world in any real sense. In the wake of the initial hysteria where we thought we were all going to be going round with monitors embedded in our skulls I think we come back to a fairly sane view of the internet. As I said earlier, it's great for storing data and therefore for accessing information, but it's become horribly commercialized. I don't think it will ever take over from print media and certainly not from electronic media. It's an add-on, not a replacement.

Does traditional media feel threatened by online publishing?

I don't think so. After all the hype has settled, it's still internet publishers who have trouble making ends meet. It's not a good medium for advertising, so its financial support base is limited.

What other media attention have you garnered?

Not much. I stay pretty low profile, rarely use by-lines.

How internet aware and savvy is the population in your part of the world?

Small but definitely growing. In the upmarket daily press there are always at least half a dozen ads for computers every day. A number of major shopping centers have entire floors boasting computer gear so obviously the market is growing. Teenagers in Jakarta at least are pretty switched on through internet cafes. Given the good prospects for the economy I'd say we're looking for a boom of sorts. Mobile phones aren't such a big investment, and they have become an everyday item for lower middle income groups within a year or so. National mobile growth is around 45% this year. My guess is computers won't be far behind on the shopping lists of the newly affluent, not least because Indonesians now put a lot of emphasis on education, so people will buy them for their children.

Who are your biggest supporters and detractors? Why?

We don't get much negative mail, though we have attempts to kill us with viruses. We put a very high fence up so if anyone wants to send mail they have to make sure to put an eye-catching subject title on it. Even so we may just ditch it, it's just too dangerous to play around with viruses. But we do get some herograms. People like our attitude more than anything, no sacred cows, but I hope they also appreciate the depth of our work.

What % approx of viruses and spam comes from Asia?

No idea.

What is the most dangerous situation you have been in?

I've been in some dangerous spots but I've never really felt as if I was going to get hit, which I suppose is a stupidly trusting attitude to life. When a bunch of hoodlums attacked the Democratic Party headquarters here in June 1996 there was a standoff between the police and troops and a mob that was throwing stones at them. About 1pm I was in no-man's land when the troops and police decided they'd had enough and charged. Everyone ran for their lives - a couple of people were killed that day. I was standing by the front fence of a house as the troops all rushed past and they just ignored me. In fact there was this little Indonesian guy who came up and sort of hid behind me, then I walked him to the corner when things had calmed down a bit so he could get away. The troops and police went berserk and were even clubbing housewives and school kids who were just there to have a look. There were quite a few occasions like that, but oddly maybe the worst one was in Brewarrina after that death in custody, when I got surrounded by a group of drunken Aboriginal people who thought I was responsible because I worked for the ABC. That wasn't a nice experience.

What is the law on spamming in Indonesia?

The government is drafting a cyberlaw now so it's a bit early to tell on that front. Enough to say that using an Indonesian credit card on the net is difficult because most vendors reject them because of the very high rate of Indonesian computer crime. Indonesians are quite creative people.

What are the hot topics right now?

Well, we've got elections coming in April next year and then the first ever direct presidential elections in July, so we are really waiting to see if Indonesia can pass this test of its new democracy. There's what I see at the moment as a positive sign in that business is tending to get on with business and ignore the politics. After the obsession with politics we've seen in Indonesia for so long it's refreshing and healthy to see people just wanting to get back to work. Then the economy, will it make it out of the IMF recovery package successfully. Poverty is still high, and 4% growth, which would be marvelous in Australia, just isn't enough here to absorb the enormous pool of unemployed. If Indonesia fails, it becomes a human disaster on a grand scale, if it succeeds there's the hope of a better educated, better fed population. The other hot topic, of course, is terrorism of which there's no shortage of debate anywhere in the world.

What are your current projects?

Trying to win the support of government on the information infrastructure program. I have the support of the minister, but winning the backing of the bureaucracy is very slow. I'm having to learn to be very patient.

How have you been described?

Arrogant, as a humanitarian. A lot of Indonesians think I look like Mr. Bean.

How would you like to be remembered?

The nicest compliment I've had was when the former Australian information attaché came back from a bilateral event in Bali and rang to say a journalist who's made quite a big name sent his regards and said I had taught him about good journalism. He was a young D grade I hired when I was bureau chief for ABC Radio in Newcastle. I've done journalist training work here and talk at seminars from time to time. I still keep in touch with some of the journalists who were in the courses I taught. So to sum it up I guess I'd like to be remembered, albeit briefly and by a mere handful of people, as a professional journalist who was always happy to share his skills with younger colleagues. If I can transform that into a businessman who made some money through providing professional services, that's fine too.

...end.

Editors note: A hard hitting, educational and interesting interview with somewhere with their ear very close to the ground in Indonesia. Something tells me that we will be hearing more from Keith Loveard, as things continue to heat up in the Indonesian region.

Links:

Laksamana.net

AsiaMad