COVID prompted Barker and other correspondents to make the “heartbreaking decision” to leave Jakarta a year ago. She continues to report from her home in Melbourne, during what has been a news-heavy year for the Australian neighbor and trade partner. Among those stories: a January flight disaster, the announcement of a COVID19 breath-test, and the release of accused Bali bomber Abu Bakar Ba’ashir, who was responsible for many Australian deaths and lifelong injuries to the survivors.
But in addition to must-cover news, Barker has woven more intimate stories about the role of women and children in Indonesian society with coverage that is rich in compassion, nuance and respect. She has also been willing to write about the political and the personal, including the departure of mentor and long-time Indonesian bureau manager Sujanti Tjandra, who left the job after 42 years to join her daughter in the U.S.
As a regular follower of Barker’s story, I wanted to know more about how she does her job: How, as an outsider who now works by remote, she nurtures source relationships; how, as a woman, she navigates in a male-dominated field; and how, in the face of demanding news, she chooses a range of stories.
You’ve written that you returned to Australia from Indonesia because of the risks in a nation with an overburdened health system, as did many other foreign correspondents. What does that mean for coverage?
ABC is committed to going back, but it’s proving more difficult than we thought. Indonesia is one of the most important to Australia in this South East Asia region, the biggest economy in South East Asia and a lot more stories happen in Indonesia rather than in Bangkok, where we have a bureau. The Indonesian government is accepting of having a large foreign media corps there. If and when I go back, I’ll be working from home in Jakarta for the foreseeable future, which will make it hard for me to do the job in the same way. We may have to hire stringers in other provinces, which we’ve been doing while I’m in Melbourne.
Do the majority of your stories come from your own investigation and interests, or from tip-offs from Indonesian sources? And how have you maintained your source networks while reporting from Australia?
It’s a bit of both. When I was in Jakarta I had the luxury to go and meet people myself, often with a producer who would act as a translator. It’s been really hard, being back in Australia, to organize this; I can’t ring or WhatsApp or Zoom people since many of my sources don’t speak English. You can’t go out for coffee with someone who has an idea for a story you want to chase. Even the producers are working from home in Jakarta. The average story I’ve been working on from Australia has been a long-winded process. I have to ask a producer in Jakarta, or we hire a stringer because we no longer have a camera operator in Jakarta. It means I don’t meet the stringers or the talent. It’s hard, but you have to make do.
In reading bylines of foreign correspondents, it seems there are still many more male names than female. Why is that?
I think that’s something the ABC has tried to address over the years; over the last five years of ABC correspondents, I’d imagine women would make up roughly half of those postings. At the same time, they want the strongest candidate for the job. I guess there are a lot of women who are thinking about whether they want to have children and can be a correspondent at the same time. One woman I know would have loved to be a correspondent, but she had children at an age time when it would clash with that ambition. I know a few cases where for some female correspondents, the husband stays at home with the kids. It’s a really demanding job. I think if I had children, I’d find it very hard to have the same commitment to doing the job. It can be all-consuming and it’s only gotten harder over the years because of the extra demand for 24-hour online news.
As a female correspondent, both in Jerusalem and Jakarta, did you get support from fellow correspondents or is it a competitive environment?
It’s both, actually. Competition in the media is healthy. In Jakarta, all the foreign media are pretty much in the same building. Amanda Hodge, the correspondent from The Australian Newspaper, and her producer work on my floor. The BBC is on the floor downstairs. James Massola, who was with Sunday Age of the Sun-Herald, was two floors below but I barely saw him. All these people become good friends when you’re living in Jakarta. It’s no different to being in the press gallery in Canberra, where I worked for five years, or anywhere in the media in Australia where you get to know colleagues from various organizations. One of my best friends when I worked in Darwin worked for a rival organization. You’re not going to tell them about the story you’re chasing, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be good friends. If I have coffee with Amanda Hodge, we just don’t talk about stories. It’s an unwritten rule unless we’re all covering the same story.
You wrote about the legacy of Sujanti “Yanti” Tjandra, who decided to leave the ABC Jakarta office after 42 years. The story included the fact that Yanti had sent her daughter to the U.S. 20 years ago to live with a relative, hoping to protect her from discrimination as a Chinese Christian in Indonesia. That raises broader questions about women’s quality of life, educational and professional opportunities in Indonesia. Do you feel that women’s stories have not been understood or given enough attention over the years?
The ABC launched a project called 50:50 a couple of years ago, with the goal of reaching 50/50 readership between women and men. They glean data from apps to see how many hits on a story are male or female. They realized that they had to increase the number of stories that are about women to correct the imbalance they’d discerned and to interview experts who are women. But if a man was telling the Yanti story, I think the news values are the same. When I wrote that story, I wasn’t trying to appeal more to women than men, but to any average reader.
Fifty women a day are dying of cervical cancer in Indonesia, which is a story I covered just before I left. I think a male journalist would have been less interested or less aware of that story. On the whole, women journalists are more open to covering those stories.
Are there questions of safety you’ve faced as a woman alone in a foreign country that have caused you to question your work? What measures do you take to ensure you are not assaulted or threatened while investigating and reporting on sensitive news?
One of the things you have to do before a foreign posting is take a course on working in a hazardous environment: earthquakes, war zones, disease and, obviously now, the pandemic. Because I work in a team, when I do a story I’m with a driver, a producer, maybe a fixer if we don’t know the lay of the land very well, and a cameraman. I’ve never felt unsafe working with my colleagues. Your ideal colleague is someone who looks out for you when things get rough, so you make decisions collectively.
Indonesian people are very helpful, very polite; I traveled for decades as a tourist or for work, and never felt threatened. But since the Bali bombings (which killed 202 people including 88 Australians), the threat in Indonesia is very real. There have been terror attacks and, in Jakarta, it’s not uncommon to hear of bag snatching. I only live 2km from work in Jakarta and walked to and from home to work, but late at night, I’d be very reluctant to go out alone in Jakarta. The widespread poverty means you’re a target.
Do you work on numerous stories simultaneously and how do you manage that process?
I often work on more than one story at the same time. I might have a story that has to be done this week, for example, because it’s topical or because there are other factors. I might also be looking at another story but know it can’t happen for a while — maybe I’m waiting for a key report to be released, or a decision to be made, that will make it a story. I keep notes about stories I’m looking at, with relevant links to reports or information, or interview transcripts, etc. There are also means to summarize this information on a shared page so editors and producers in Sydney are aware of what correspondents are doing, where they’re at, and when they might be finished and ready to run.
Did you learn languages and research cultural norms (dress, religious rituals, greetings) before applying and beginning your role as Middle East and Indonesia correspondent respectively?
Learning the language has been on and off, but living there has meant my skills have vastly improved. It makes a big difference to be able to speak to people, even in broken Bahasa. In the Middle East, it wasn’t a posting I thought I’d love. It was a bit more sudden. I learned Arabic for a year when I was in Jerusalem, but it’s very hard to learn a language from scratch when you’re working full-time in a very demanding job. I probably would have been better off learning Hebrew, since I was living in West Jerusalem and working with many Israelis.
What experience and qualities do you believe are essential to success as a foreign correspondent, more so than purely local journalism and news reportage. What experience prepares a journalism student for a career in reporting from, and on, a foreign country? (ie. Travel, language skills, voluntary aid work, etc.)
Read as much as you possibly can, as widely as you can, about the country or region you’re interested in. Know the issues in that region and keep tables on them.
Have a good news sense. It’s essential, to recognize something that may not be in the mainstream media could be developed into a really good story for radio or TV.
You have to be prepared to work all hours of the day, any day of the week. Just when you think you’re going out to dinner, you’ll get called to cover a plane crash. I’ve had to wake a correspondent at 2 a.m. to cover a shooting in LA.
Being hardworking and prolific is very important. They always say you’re only as good as your last story. If that was a month ago, people won’t remember you.
Cat Woods is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. She writes on music, arts, design, women’s wellbeing and fitness.