Intern's passion for journalism opens doors in Indonesia

NZME journalist Katie Harris says studying Bahasa Indonesia and interning for global news agency APF earlier this year was a life changing experience that made her reconsider the way she approaches journalism. Katie completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism at Canterbury University in 2019.

Sitting in Lombok with a camera in one hand, some local coffee in the other and two Australians in tow, I started my interview with a local named Dion.

I never imagined I’d end up this situation. Firstly because I don’t drink coffee, let alone the piles of sugar that were lumped in before I could say ‘berhenti’ (stop), but mainly because I’d never dreamed my passion for journalism would lead me to a little house on a little island to talk about surfing.

It began as an idea. I like surfing, I love journalism and there seemed to be a lack of female Indonesian surfers – besides women on the more island of liberal Bali. Then, two weeks later, I was on a plane to the ‘Land of a thousand Mosques’ or Lombok, an island with over three million inhabitants, world-renowned surf breaks and one girl who is believed to be the only local female surfer – Lisa.

katie3Katie covered a diverse range of stories from Lombok's only female surfer to the treason trial of two Papuan activists. Photo: Katie Harris

And this was one chapter of my Indonesian experience.

Last year, I was selected as a recipient of an Asia New Zealand travel grant, and thanks to this funding I was able to spend seven weeks in Indonesia, learning the language and doing a month-long placement at the Agence France –Presse (AFP).

I originally heard of the Jakarta Journalism Practicum from then-Newshub journalist Megan Sutherland who’d done the trip two years ago and since then I’d had my heart set on attending.

Indonesia is more than just racy headlines. Before coming to the country I had a narrow view of the stories Indonesia had to offer, as more often than not, what makes it into the New Zealand media sphere is ‘Bali sex ban’ or ‘Tourist drug bust’. But the country is far more complex than sensationalist content may have you believe. 

katie10On her trip, Katie (centre) found a sincerity and kindness in the people she met. Photo: Katie Harris

You can’t go to Indonesia and not comment on the sincerity and kindness of its people. Although you do get some street harassment as a woman, the majority of people are overwhelmingly nice and are always ready to help.

One of my most memorable experiences was when I was reporting from a trial in Jakarta for two Papuan activists. The men, both of who were on trial for treason, were at a stalemate with the legal system due to their choice of court attire- a Koteka, the traditional Papuan penis gourd. During the controversial hearing, I met activists, lawyers and human rights workers from throughout Indonesia. This would have been incredibly difficult if it hadn’t been for my Asia New Zealand Foundation grant.

Before starting my placement at AFP,  I completed a two-week language course in Bahasa Indonesia. As a reporter, I was eager to get out in the field and start work, but the training and basic words I learnt during my time at Atma Jaya University proved invaluable in both my professional and personal life in Jakarta.

Although most people in the capital spoke English, being able to show you respect their culture by learning at least some of the language helped bridge the often gaping cultural divide.

katie4Covering the trial of two Papuan activists charged with treason provided Katie with insights into Indonesia's legal system. Photo: Katie Harris

The team at AFP were amazing to work with. Working for a Newswire meant the stories I wrote went to countless global outlets and were published worldwide.

As well as helping my journalism, my experience in Indonesia helped me realise new ways to connect with people from different cultures.

I reported on everything from condom raids in Makassar to a crocodile with a tyre stuck around its neck and even how sex taboos were impacting the popularity of women’s menstrual products.

It’s hard to articulate how much this experience has changed my reporting, and my life, but I am already counting down the days until I can return.

Some of Katie's articles published while she was in Indonesia

Katie was the 2019 recipient of ACICIS Journalism Professional Practicum (JPP) for students of journalism, media and communication studies, and early career journalists.