Illustration: Smaranda Tolosano for GIJN
It’s impossible to discuss collaboration in journalism — especially investigative journalism — in Indonesia without mentioning Wahyu Dhyatmika. Whether initiating partnerships, building collaborations, or getting directly involved in the coverage, he has played an instrumental role in many of the biggest investigations in recent years.
Starting his journalism career in 1996, when Indonesia was still under the Suharto dictatorship, Wahyu’s work has seen him investigate corruption, financial crime, fraud, and migration. In recent years, he has also been actively promoting the use of data journalism in Indonesia.
As a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), Wahyu was a key player in the Panama Papers project, publishing stories on several politicians and public officials whose names appeared in the leaked Mossack Fonseca documents.
Currently the CEO of Tempo Digital, he has been the recipient of a number of prestigious awards, and last year won the Soetandyo Award for his contribution to defending human rights and the public interest, and elevating minority voices.
In this edition of 10 Questions, Wahyu shares insights on his career trajectory, discusses his favorite investigative projects and tools, and speaks to the broader challenges facing investigative journalism in Indonesia.
GIJN: Of all the investigations you’ve worked on, which has been your favorite and why?
Wahyu Dhyatmika: As investigative journalists, we work on our stories carefully, making sure we identify the real culprits and expose evidence of wrongdoing. Therefore, whenever we finish a story and publish, the piece becomes the latest of a long list of favorite stories.
But, if I have to choose, I’d pick the stories that bring the most impact. One is a story about an estate in Merauke, Papua, that I did back in April 2012. It started with several documents submitted to Tempo’s newsroom by an Indigenous people’s movement, which complained that a government-backed agriculture project had caused land grabbing by investors. I spent several days in the jungle, living with the Indigenous community to learn about their grievances and understand what really happened there. I tried to convey their despair and the changes in their way of life since the project had destroyed their homes: the forest.
The story was published at the right moment. The Alliance of Nusantara Indigenous People (AMAN) had just filed a case in the Constitutional Court of Indonesia, asking for legal recognition of Indigenous people’s land, to avoid the very conflict I discovered in Papua. A few months after that, the Constitutional Court granted their request, and for the first time, acknowledged the rights of Indigenous people to control the forest on their lands.
GIJN: What are the biggest challenges in terms of investigative reporting in your country or region?
WD: In Indonesia, getting public data and documents from official sources is still the biggest challenge. Not all public data is available and accessible in a format that can be easily processed and analyzed. Sometimes this isn’t about deliberate concealment, but because of a lack of understanding of how to coordinate sharing mechanisms between different government agencies. But the limited amount of available data and its low quality have become a recurring issue.
GIJN: What’s been the greatest hurdle or challenge that you’ve faced in your time as an investigative journalist?
WD: One of the most difficult challenges for Indonesian investigative journalists can come from inside the newsroom or from the publisher. If your boss intervenes and asks to kill a story, there’s little you can do without the risk of losing your job. Many journalists in Indonesia have been taught to exercise strong self-censorship when it comes to topics that can cause harm for their publisher’s businesses.
Fortunately, I’ve never experienced that kind of pressure from my publisher. Tempo is an independent media site, and from the beginning, we have had no majority shareholders. The ownership is shared amongst four different entities, several are nonprofit foundations, which means the owners’ business interests never interfere with our newsroom.
However, it was a different case when we worked on IndonesiaLeaks, a nationwide collaborative project to investigate a high-level corruption case within the police, using leaks from whistleblowers. Several editors from other newsrooms reported that their owners warned them about the business consequences of publishing the story. We had a lengthy discussion to save the story from internal censorship and finally were able to publish it in different outlets.
GIJN: What is your best tip or trick for interviewing?
WD: I’m lucky because I’ve had opportunities to interview presidents, CEOs, academics, and, of course, ordinary people from many walks of life. No matter who the interviewee is, a journalist needs to start by making the source feel comfortable talking. Only then will they share their opinions, insights, and information. That doesn’t mean we have to put on a friendly face and ask only favorable questions. We still can – and have to – ask hard and difficult questions. However, when a source trusts us, they will explain their position better.
Another important tip: always know your source’s reason for talking to you. Sometimes that is the story. Once you know their motivation and what they expect from meeting with you, you will be able to better navigate the interview and get the information you want.
GIJN: What is a favorite reporting tool, database, or app that you use in your investigations?
WD: I always like a tool that can help me understand the big picture of a particular issue. So, database tools are included in the list of my favorite tools. Aleph by OCCRP and the ICIJ’s Offshore Leaks database are good places to start when you want to familiarize yourself with an issue or a network of companies or individuals.
For the same reason, I like geospatial tools like Google Earth and Sentinel, because they give you another perspective to understand an issue. A good friend of mine, Kuek Ser Kuang Keng, recently taught me how to do research on historical geospatial data using both tools and it’s fascinating to discover how maps can help readers understand an issue better. Before learning those tools, and for personal fun, I used to play around with Datawrapper or Flourish.
GIJN: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten thus far in your career and what words of advice would you give an aspiring investigative journalist?
WD: When I was a cub reporter, one of the mantras my editors told me was: always be skeptical. This helps you to ask better questions, because you will never be satisfied with only one side of a story. One editor also taught me to draw a mind map of different topics, sub-topics, questions, main questions, follow-up questions, assumptions, and hypotheses, to be better organized when writing your story outline.
With time, I’ve learned that being skeptical also means you need to question even your own beliefs and findings, which helps you to realize your own biases and shortcomings. It keeps you honest and accountable to your readers.
Being organized is also key, because you need to be able to structure your findings, data, documents, and interviews in a way that enables you to see everything and connect the dots. I had a few moments in my early career when I was lost in my own labyrinth of information. When that happens, it’s easy to miss crucial evidence or forget an important line from an interview that can really change the course of your investigation.
Organization also helps you in the long run. For an investigative journalist, having a database that you compile throughout the years is extremely valuable. Every encounter with a source, every piece of evidence, every interview recording, every database, can be a new lead or a gateway to a missing piece of the puzzle in an ongoing story.
GIJN: Who is a journalist you admire, and why?
WD: Mochtar Lubis, the great writer and journalist who was the lead investigative reporter, and also editor-in-chief, of the Indonesia Raya newspaper back in the 1970s. He basically started investigative journalism in Indonesia with his stories on corruption and scandals all over the country.
One of his legendary stories exposed fraud and embezzlement in Indonesia’s state-owned oil and gas company. The story was remarkable because he and his team combined documents and data with insiders’ and whistleblowers’ remarks to help bring the public attention to this story.
He was persistent and would stop at nothing to bring the story to light. At a time when freedom of the press was not yet regarded as a citizen’s basic right, Lubis’ work made people understand the importance and necessity of having an independent watchdog as the fourth estate.
GIJN: What is the greatest mistake you’ve made and what lessons did you learn?
WD: My biggest mistake happened when I forgot those two key pieces of advice: to be skeptical and organized. When you think you have a big story and have access to a great inside source willing to leak documents and data, it is easy to slip and miss one more important verification step, or to double-check all your findings before you publish.
In this case, a deadline was the other factor. When you are under pressure to publish, it is easier to approve a half-baked story than to drop it and find a stronger one. I learned my lesson when the newsroom’s ombudsman criticized one of my stories and we didn’t get the impact we wanted from it. Instead of triggering change and reform, the story was easily dismissed and nothing happened to the perpetrators. If we were more patient, we might have gotten better impact with stronger evidence.
From that, I learned that it is important to always ask for a second opinion from another editor before a story is published. It is also helpful to double-check with the legal team, to make sure you don’t miss anything that might bring you and your team legal problems. Being sued is not fun and it can damage your credibility.
GIJN: How do you avoid burnout in your line of work?
WD: I love hiking and being outdoors with my family. Weekends with loved ones always help to recharge your batteries. But I also realized that the most important thing to avoid burnout is to love what you are doing. You have to find what motivates you to keep reporting and what makes you happy. Find that small happiness in your daily routine and it will help stop the boredom that can eat away the fun of journalism.
For me, I find joy in the opportunity to always grow in this profession. I can learn new things almost every day by talking to different people, attending workshops, and training, trying out new tools, or accessing new databases. My father always said: do what you love and love what you do. I think that advice still rings true.
GIJN: What about investigative journalism do you find frustrating, or do you hope will change in the future?
WD: I think the notion that investigative reporting is a complex, expensive, and time-consuming venture needs to change. It’s true that doing this type of journalism is more challenging, but it is also more rewarding and more relevant for today’s digital audience. I believe all journalism needs to at least have some investigative characteristics.
One of the solutions is to create a business model where investigative reporting is not a cost center, but a revenue center that can generate profit for the media. There are many ways to achieve that; all publishers need to do is start focusing on their audience and find the best way to serve their needs.
Kholikul Alim is GIJN’s Indonesian editor. He is also the managing editor of Jaring.id, a nonprofit media outlet based in Jakarta which is a member of GIJN. In the last five years, he has provided training and mentoring to reporters in the areas of data journalism and digital security.