Siska Silitonga (4th Quarter, 2006)

4th Quarter, 2006
Minority  Scholarship Winner
Siska Silitonga

Siska Silitonga is an Indonesian radio journalist. She is the China Correspondent for an independent Indonesian radio called Radio 68H. Her efforts made it possible for KBR 68H to become the first official Indonesian news bureau in China. Her passion is to tell ordinary people’s stories, especially those who are underrepresented and oppressed. For her, journalism is not a career choice, but an obligation to society. Siska is currently finishing her Master’s in Media Studies at New College of California in San Francisco. She will return to Beijing next year and looks forward to covering the 2008 Summer Olympics.

A Portion of Siska’s Winning Essay:

Siska Silitonga

My name is Siska Silitonga. For the past three years, I have been a foreign correspondent for an independent Indonesian radio station called KBR 68H in Beijing, China. I write stories on China’s politics and social issues in both English and Indonesian. The program which requires me to write in English is entitled “Asia Calling”. It started in 2003. It is Indonesia’s only news program broadcast in English and produced by local Indonesian radio. Asia Calling has journalists all over Asia and broadcasts across Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia. It’s funded by the Media Development Fund based in New York.

People might ask: Why China? Why do I want to make a difference through journalism? Perhaps if my life had been a simple one I wouldn’t be where I am right now. But I have seen great poverty, misery, and injustice around me. They moved my heart and that’s why I want to use my skills as a journalist to help others.

I left Indonesia in 1998 because at that time my country was experiencing serious political turmoil. I was a law student at the best university in the country. It is also a very vocal one. I remember that the students from my school started demonstrations against our then-president. He had ruled Indonesia for thirty-two years; his power was unchallenged, and he was so corrupt that poverty was widespread in Indonesia.

For two months we didn’t have classes. All we did was demonstrate in the streets, asking the president to step down. Day and night we wrote banners and talked to neighbors, to other students, even to our parents. We asked them to come with us to demonstrate, and we told them not to be afraid anymore. We needed to stand up for our rights.

But things started to get worse when there was a clash between the authorities and students. Snipers shot and killed some students. Indonesians were outraged. While we students mourned the death of our friends, gangs and mobs took over the streets. They damaged vehicles, burned buildings, and looted shops. Many ethnic Chinese-Indonesians, who own most of the businesses in Indonesia, were raped, burned alive, or killed. There is only one reason for this brutality: during that time the ethnic Chinese were used by the government as a scapegoat for the poverty issue in Indonesia.

It was a year that none of us can forget. Even though the president did step down and we gained our democracy, it was too traumatic for me to stay. I had to leave.

I decided I wanted to go to China. I guess I wanted to prove to myself and people in my country that not all native Indonesians hate the Chinese. I wanted to be someone who could perhaps change negative attitudes towards ethnic Chinese-Indonesians.

At that time the Chinese language was banned in Indonesia. The Chinese had to change their names to more common Indonesian names, and they couldn’t even celebrate their holidays openly. This racism had been started by the corrupt president and his government when he had come to power after defeating the communist party (which had many ethnic Chinese members) in 1965. It was strange for me to be the only native Indonesian in a Chinese university, learning a language that I had never heard before. My Chinese teachers were also stunned. They had never had native Indonesians before in their classes. At first my friends laughed when I told them I lived in China. They asked whether or not I could see Bruce Lee jumping from roof to roof doing some martial arts moves.

But then things changed dramatically in Indonesia and also in China. As we all know, the red dragon has awakened. Every country in the world is trying to do business with China. It has a big market, massive human resources, cheap labor, and cheap goods. The Indonesian government can’t stay away from China either. Our new president restored relations with the country by visiting Beijing, opened up our market to Chinese goods, and allowed people to speak Chinese in Indonesia. Many laws that are biased against the Chinese-Indonesians are being reviewed. Suddenly everyone wants to learn Mandarin, including those who laughed at me before.

After I got my Bachelor’s degree in Chinese language, I got a job as a news assistant at the Voice of America (VOA) Beijing bureau. My role at that agency was very small at the beginning. I was just helping the news correspondents to do interviews in Chinese. But after learning about the media and what journalists could do to help people, I decided that I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to work in this field.

Our bureau chiefs in Beijing and the editors in Hong Kong were very good trainers. I am grateful that they went out of their way to teach newcomers like me. I guess they saw my desire to learn about journalism. They knew I was very passionate about our stories and the people that we talked to during our interviews. They taught me so much about broadcasting: how to write good radio stories, how to get news, and why we write news.

After three years working with the agency, first as a news assistant and later as a producer, I was finally promoted to be one of their writers in Beijing. I learned a lot about China and its society by writing reports about them. I noticed that Indonesia and China both have similar issues. We are both developing countries. We both have problems with corruption and poverty in our societies.

One day in 2003, a producer named Matt Abud contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in reporting stories on China for a new English-language Indonesian radio program entitled “Asia Calling”. I couldn’t believe what I had heard. I had wanted to be a news correspondent for years but opportunities had never come up. There had never been an Indonesian news agency in China before us. According to China’s law, foreign reporters need to obtain accreditation from the Chinese Foreign Ministry to legally work and write reports in the country.

So I went and spoke with officials at the Foreign Ministry. I applied for a bureau license and accreditation as a journalist. I had to go back and forth between China and Indonesia to meet with KBR 68H producers and to speak with the Public Affairs Attache to the Chinese consulate in Jakarta. Finally, in 2004 they approved our application. KBR 68H is officially the first Indonesian news agency accredited by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

I am very proud to work with Asia Calling and KBR 68H. I can tell China’s stories to the Indonesian audience across the country. Since I am the only Indonesian reporter in China, I feel that my job goes beyond reporting the news. I am a bridge between two countries, two peoples, and two cultures. My country is a new democracy, and the media has a big role in this democratic process. The public needs to know the truth. They need access to good information so they can participate wisely and actively in Indonesia’s reform process. I am glad I can be a part of this movement. I love my job, and I thank KBR 68H for giving me this opportunity. I also thank them for giving me one year off so I can pursue my Master’s in the United States. I feel obligated to improve myself and my journalism skills so I can provide better reports for my audience.

I never had journalism training before. I got into this profession simply because I realized what reporters could do to help people. That’s why I often call myself an “accidental journalist”. I believe New College of California will help me achieve my goal of becoming an excellent foreign correspondent who can help my Indonesian audience avoid making inaccurate assumptions about China. I want to help them learn the truth about China.

What issues are they facing? How does China deal with these problems? How do the people in China feel about the rapid development? What is China’s goal? Why is it more developed than our country? All these questions need to be asked. My audience needs to evaluate Indonesia’s current situation and perhaps learn some good things from China. I also deeply hope that by listening to my reports, policy makers in Indonesia can avoid making certain mistakes by learning from the Chinese government’s bad experiences.

I am learning so much at New College. I really believe this school is helping me become a better journalist. I critically analyze my stories with teachers and classmates and have discussions with them about social change and media reform. After my studies at New College of California I will go back to China and continue writing stories for KBR 68H, and I know I will be a better reporter than I was before because of the new skills I have gained through my studies here in the U.S.

Copyright 2009, All rights reserved.

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