From SOS to SMS

Mobile journalism service aims to protect Indonesian forests, connect villages

From SOS to SMS
James Fahn

James Fahn, Executive Director of Internews' Earth Journalism Network, wrote this column for the Columbia Journalism Review.

WEST KALIMANTAN PROVINCE, INDONESIA—Alim, the chief of news for Ruai TV, remembers when the area didn’t have a privately operated station to serve as a voice for the province’s indigenous people; it didn’t have the infrastructure to support one.

“When I was growing up in my village, we didn’t even have electricity,” says Alim, 31, who goes by one name. The Indonesian journalist is a member of the Dayak, an ethnic group on the island of Borneo. “I dreamed of going to school, getting a job, and having my own TV set. I never imagined I’d actually be on TV myself.”

What’s more, Alim is part of an exciting experiment that his station is undertaking: an attempt to harness the power and the reach of mobile phones by training remote villagers to send news and information via SMS messages.

“Before we started this SMS network, I didn’t think the media had much influence,” Alim says. “The national media almost never cover our problems involving conflicts in local communities over land issues or mining. But now we see there is an impact if we just provide steady data, without including our opinions.”

In the village Nanga Nuar, a Ruai TV report based on input from the SMS network led local police and the Ministry of Forestry to step in and halt illegal forest clearing, Alim says. A more frequent result, though, is helping to resolve disputes over land and resources between local communities and powerful palm oil companies, whose plantations dominate the local economy and are widely blamed for destroying Indonesian tropical forests, or at least any hope of re-growing them.

“The loggers initially take out a lot of trees, but a great deal of biodiversity remains in the area, and if left alone the forests can grow back,” says Harry Surjadi, a veteran Jakarta-based journalist. “But there’s no chance of them regenerating once the palm oil companies move in and cover the land with plantations.”

Building an SMS network to help monitor the remote reaches of Kalimantan was Surjadi’s brainchild. With the support of Internews’ Center for Innovation and Learning (Internews is my employer), the International Center for Journalists, and the Packard Foundation, he not only established the network, but also trained more than 100 citizen journalists to feed it with accurate and timely news and information.

One of those citizen journalists, or CJs, is Simon.

“I became interested in this project because I believe it can open the eyes of my people,” says Simon, a Dayak rubber farmer and credit union trainer from Silat Hilir district. “Our people were blind and had no voice. When they have problems, they don’t know how to communicate them to the outside world.”

Alim, who runs Ruai TV’s Citizen Journalism Training Center, says the mobile network in Kalimantan is making a real impact. It employs a technology called Frontline SMS, an open-source system designed to distribute mass messages via mobile phones. There are still a few technical glitches. Distribution is hampered by frequent power outages and by cell phone companies that react suspiciously to mass text messages, and there remain problems in getting the Ruai TV news ticker and website to automatically display incoming messages.

But overall, the network has worked well and grown rapidly since it was initiated last year. It now has about 700 members, including around 160 citizen journalists, though only about 10 are active, sending at least one message per day. Public officials and other stakeholders make up the bulk of the membership, but sending out the messages to everyone has proven to be surprisingly expensive, acknowledges Stephanus Masiun, the founder and station director of Ruai TV.

“We have a budget of about one to two million rupiah [about $220] per month to spend on this, and sending out just one message to all 700 members costs around 200,000 rupiah [roughly $22],” he explains. “So we have to be selective in deciding what messages to send to whom. We’ve divided recipients up into different groups, and we decide what messages they receive based on what we think they’ll be interested in.”

In effect, Ruai TV is operating a kind of private news service via SMS, but the station also displays selected messages in its public broadcasts. And it takes the best tips from its CJs and turns them into full-blown news stories produced by Alim and his professional colleagues.

“Having the link to a TV network and its news organization is what really makes the difference for this project, really gives it influence,” says Surjadi. “After I became active with the SMS network and Ruai TV, the palm oil companies were no longer able to lie so easily. They have to take us seriously.”

That’s important because the local communities are involved in numerous long-running land disputes with the plantation companies. Under a complicated Nucleus Estates and Smallholders scheme [PDF], the firms are given massive concessions to plant palm oil on forest land—much of it degraded by previous logging—but after five years they are supposed to hand over part of the land to local villagers to manage. It hasn’t happened, Simon says.

Adrianus Adam Tekot, another citizen journalist who is also a village headman, credits the SMS network for pushing the palm oil company in his area to hand over 117 hectares (290 acres) of plantation land to local people in the Binua Sunge Manur region of West Kalimantan where he lives, providing financial compensation in lieu of land to others, and repairing part of a dirt road it had rendered almost impassable due to its operations. This may be a pittance compared to the 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) in concessionary land the company was provided by the government, but it’s a start, say the Dayak.

As for protecting natural forest, the results have been more limited, but Alim and Simon point to the Nanga Nuar case as an example of how providing news via text messaging can help. “The police came to us following our report on Ruai TV. We did not go to them,” says Alim. “As a result, the Ministry of Forestry has set up an investigative team and we are ready to provide information. A helicopter has come to do aerial surveillance three times, something that has never happened before.”

There have also been disappointments, Alim concedes, such as when he exposed a “big land scandal” in the Senggaulat area, and nothing happened. He’s also frustrated by the fact that many journalists in Kalimantan take payoffs to report positive news about palm oil companies. “I’ve been offered many bribes, too, as much as 30 million rupiah [over $3,000],” he says, holding up three fingers to indicate a stack of bills that high. “It’s actually a sign that we’re doing a good job as journalists. If we were just ordinary reporters, we wouldn’t be offered anything.”

Sam de Silva, an Internews technical advisor who helped set up the SMS network, thinks it can be improved if citizen journalists and other forest monitors are provided with smart phones able to record the GPS locations of infractions. He and his Internews colleagues are also researching “drone journalism” and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for covering environmental issues.

Meanwhile, Masiun and Alim are keen to get more funding to train more citizen journalists as reliable news sources. There are a lot more conflict areas in West Kalimantan, they say, that are going under-covered. But the fact that Ruai TV is willing to spend its own money to keep the SMS network going is the best evidence that it has value, and should be sustainable.

“Being a journalist opened my eyes to these forestry and land issues,” says Alim. “What is happening now, or beginning to happen is so satisfying, because usually the media only report complaints, but here we feel we are helping provide solutions.”

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