Written by Ilham Akhsanu Ridlo
The World Health Organization (WHO), through The International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, declared the COVID-19 pandemic as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30 January 2020 (Li et al., 2020). During the last year, many countries have struggled to curb COVID-19 infections by applying various policies, from mobilising healthcare facilities to stricter policies like restricting human mobility or implementing lockdowns. Policies and regulations aimed at controlling the outbreak have brought severe consequences for the public, especially in Indonesia as a developing country. On 21 July 2021, the Indonesian government reported 2.983.830 (33.772 new) confirmed cases of COVID-19, 77.583 (1.383 new) deaths, and 2.356.553 recovered cases from 510 districts across all 34 provinces (World Health Organization, 2021).
At the outset of the pandemic, the Indonesian government was reluctant to adopt a stricter containment policy since they feared it would harm economic development. The hesitancy is evident from the initial response to the pandemic where, instead of adequately preparing epidemiological interventions, the government denied the fact that a severe pandemic was approaching. On the contrary, the government saw “the overseas outbreak “as an opportunity to push the tourism sector. This was the reason for the issuance of a presidential mandate on 25 February 2020 that focused on mitigating the pandemic impact on economic sectors (Aziz, 2020; Gorbiano, 2020). Unfortunately, the policy was far from successful since the policy was not adhering to the local quarantine concept, deviating from many epidemiological experts’ suggestions (Syakriah, 2020).
The World Health Organization (WHO), through The International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, declared the COVID-19 pandemic as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30 January 2020 (Li et al., 2020). During the last year, many countries have struggled to curb COVID-19 infections by applying various policies, from mobilising healthcare facilities to stricter policies like restricting human mobility or implementing lockdowns. Policies and regulations aimed at controlling the outbreak have brought severe consequences for the public, especially in Indonesia as a developing country. On 21 July 2021, the Indonesian government reported 2.983.830 (33.772 new) confirmed cases of COVID-19, 77.583 (1.383 new) deaths, and 2.356.553 recovered cases from 510 districts across all 34 provinces (World Health Organization, 2021)
Indonesia’s failure to reduce the rate of COVID-19 infections after announcing its first cases in March reflects a slow, poor, and inconsistent response to the spread of the virus (Mietzner, 2020). The handling of the virus has damaged the country’s global reputation since it significantly contributes to unabating the pandemic on a larger, global scale (Rahmad, 2020). This failure was mainly due to the lack of coherence in communicating policies and the inability to translate scientific expertise into a concrete, coordinated measure. The lack of coherence might stem from the rise of populism, anti-scientific jargon, the increased support to religious conservatism, political polarisation, corruption, and clientelism among anti-democratic supporters (Mietzner, 2020). Indonesia, therefore, is an interesting case where the decline of democracy and weakened press freedom could undermine the effort of solving the health crisis.
Many journalists, human rights activists, and scientists have long criticised the lack of transparency regarding the COVID-19 data. The suspicion arose when an apparent discrepancy between the official number of cases reported at the national level with the sum of cases reported on the provincial governments’ websites. Official sources and data are incredibly scattered, while local, regional, and national leaders applied conflicting policies due to a lack of cooperation (Noer, 2020; Sutrisno, 2020; Wirawan et al., 2020). This puzzling situation gives Indonesian journalists an immense challenge to identify credible sources, let alone deliver accurate, consistent, and factual information to the public.
Rather than improving public access to testing data and other crucial epidemiological indicators, the authorities were keener on abusing the internet defamation laws to censure laypeople for vilifying the government or allegedly spreading false information regarding the pandemic (Djalante et al., 2020; “Indonesia,” 2020). Not surprisingly, journalists are a vulnerable target of such attacks and harassment since their reporting on the pandemic has often been deemed an attack on the authorities. According to a survey conducted by Institute for Criminal Justice Reform in early 2021, involving 125 journalists as participants, 16 per cent of participants reported being a victim of cyberattack (i.e. doxing, flaming, etc.) during the pandemic, where 45 per cent of those participants alleged the attack was related to their COVID-19 coverage (“Hari Pers Nasional,” 2021; Shader et al., 2021). Apart from this, journalists have also experienced the fear of pay cuts and layoffs from their employers. This debilitating crisis was previously associated with reporting on war or natural disasters, but now it is a broad reality for many journalists, including Indonesia (Ciruzzo, 2020; Lewis, 2020).
Indonesian science journalists have struggled to provide reliable, accurate information about the pandemic to the public because other parts of the communication ecosystem, such as social media, are contaminated with noises and distractions. ‘Unofficial political buzzers’ have sparked controversy over quarantine or lockdown policies (Hermawan, 2020). The buzzers played an essential role in raising issues on Twitter and creating narratives to become trending topics. Therefore, the buzzers were beyond mere political campaign warfare (Perlmutter, 2008; Towner & Dulio, 2012). Twitter is seen as an essential platform because any trending issue guarantees extensive coverage in the mainstream media and, eventually, influences policies (Conway et al., 2015). In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the buzzers often notoriously attack any criticism directed to the government regarding its pandemic responses, targeting journalists (Felicia & Loisa, 2019; Sugiono, 2020). The buzzers might be sometimes valuable for drawing public support by amplifying government policies on social media but unavoidably unleash more controversy than trust (Prima, 2021).
Before COVID-19, mainstream media rarely made health issues a headline. Still, journalists play a significant role in the disaster communication ecosystem by providing accurate and factual information to the public (Perreault & Perreault, 2021; Sharma et al., 2020a, 2020b). Journalism unavoidably shares many similarities to scientific work, where journalists are expected to do extensive research before covering a specialised issue, like a health crisis, to make sure they only source their reporting from credible, trusted informants (Katz, 1989; Lewis, 2020). Amidst the incoherent messages from the government, some journalists, especially online journalists, are struggling to meet this demand. Criticism is mainly directed towards online media favouring sensational but misleading headlines to bait clicks, potentially contributing to the rampant spread of misinformation (Ihsan, 2020).
Moreover, online journalists are infamously known for not verifying their sources appropriately, mainly understaffed and heavily overworked (Manninen, 2017). On the other hand, journalism practices in Indonesia are primarily transformed by digital technology, where online platforms, such as Tirto.id, katadata.co.id, Tempo.co.id, The Jakarta Post, or Narasi embrace data journalism. Their journalists are more adept at utilising new technology, like Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), to conduct an online investigation (Badri, 2017; Hanifan, 2020). It is thus interesting to explore Indonesian journalists’ role as a part of the disaster communication ecosystem whose work influences and is influenced by the context and environment surrounding them (Spialek et al., 2016).
Disaster journalism focuses on mediating the nexus between the public, experts and policymakers by facilitating the discourse about current, emerging and developing risks. Therefore, disaster journalism should be considered an essential factor in determining health advocacy, research, health education, and public health practices. In the context of a pandemic, disaster journalism is also interlinked with risk communication. The combination of those two can raise public awareness of the health crisis (Howe, 2020; Sorribes & Rovira, 2011), encourage health-seeking behaviour and preventive behaviour adoption (Sharma et al., 2020b; Thomas & Senkpeni, 2020), as well as shaping health policy agenda (Otten, 1992). The challenge of doing journalism well in times of crisis is this ecology may present more challenges than revelations in its established form (Katz, 1989).
This means that journalists and journalism face significant challenges, such as reporting accurate information to the public amid the political and financial pressure in the newsroom. On the other hand, delivering distressing news daily to those concerned about their health and the long-term effect of the disease gives journalists immeasurable pressure (Perreault & Perreault, 2021). In conclusion, journalists may influence public awareness and policymaking in handling the pandemic apart from the challenge they have to overcome. However, putting journalism in the same frame with policing health crises is rarely researched in science communication studies (Ciruzzo, 2020; Schwind et al., 2021; Wolfe et al., 2013).
During the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, journalists also serve as mediators between health experts, the public, and policymakers (Henriksson, 2020; Herlinda, 2020). Therefore, productive cooperation between journalists and scientists is a pressing issue to deliver scientifically, evidence-based information about the newly emerging virus and its diagnostics, treatment, and vaccines. In Indonesia, science journalists have worked extensively with experts to educate the public and advocate policies, but the cultural gap between those professions is unavoidably evident. While many scientists admit that they gain many advantages from media visibility, there is an issue about inaccuracies, a lack of objectivity and anti-scientific attitudes reflected by the media coverage (Peters, 1995). In this regard, journalists may tend to obstruct rather than facilitate science communication to the public. The cultural gap between scientists and journalists might stem from seeing accuracy and readability as trade-offs in communicating complex issues to the public. Failing to establish such cooperation would carry a risk of producing inadequate, misleading, or incomplete news coverage that leads to bad individual decisions or influences policymakers to adopt harmful or misguided laws, regulations, and policies (Sharma et al., 2020b), while such reporting could be considered as a public health threat by itself. Therefore, it is important to explore to what extent Indonesian journalists work side-by-side with scientists and health experts to educate the public about the risk of COVID-19 and advocate evidence-based policies to the policymakers.