This episode features Fulbright Alumna Evi Mariani. Evi was a 2011 Hubert Humphrey Fellow from Indonesia at Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Her critical work has been widely recognized, and she is the recipient of several prestigious journalism awards including a Society of Publishers in Asia award for excellence in public journalism, the Tasrif Award, the Indonesia Print Media Awards Golden Award for investigative journalism, and the Influential Media Figure award from MAW Talk Awards. She was also a reporter and later Managing Editor at the Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia’s most respected and long-running English-language daily newspapers.
Evi and her colleagues founded Project Multatuli in 2021. Project Multatuli is a public service journalism initiative dedicated to carrying out the ideals of giving a voice to the voiceless, spotlighting the marginalized, and reporting on the underreported. The organization produces data-based, deeply researched news stories. They collaborate with other news organizations, research bodies, and civil society groups that strive for democracy, human rights, social justice, environmental sustainability, and equal rights for all.
Evi shares with the story of how she came to create Project Multatuli and how the collective is using innovative approaches to produce journalism aligned with their mission to serve the underreported and hold power accountable. We discuss the Project’s strategies to disrupt dominant practices in Indonesia’s media industry, and the challenges of creating a work culture and societal structures that support truly inclusive media production.
Alumni & Voices: Evi Mariani Sofian
In CONVERSATION with Evi Mariani, Executive Director of Project Multatuli
Evi Mariani, Kelli Swazey
Kelli Swazey: Welcome to Fulbright Forward a podcast that explores the different ways the lives of people in the Fulbright community intersect with issues of diversity, equity access, inclusion and justice. I'm Kelli Swazey, the Diversity and Inclusion liaison for Fulbright programs in East Asia and the Pacific. In today's episode, I talk story with Fulbright alumna Evi Mariani. Evi was a 2011 Hubert Humphrey fellow from Indonesia at Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Her critical work has been widely recognized, and she is the recipient of several prestigious journalism awards, including a Society of Publishers in Asia award for excellence in public journalism, the Tasrif Award, the Indonesia Print Media Awards Golden Award for investigative journalism, and the Influential Media Figure Award from MAW Talk Awards. She was also a reporter and later Managing Editor at the Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia's most respected and long running English language daily newspapers. Throughout the course of her career in Indonesian mainstream media, Evi has pushed to cover the topics that don't often get covered, to amplify the voices of historically marginalized communities, and reflect on how journalism can serve as a force for equity and justice. Inspired by her groundbreaking reporting on the plight of urban poor communities in Jakarta, as well as her experience interning at Street Sense, a Washington DC based newspaper devoted to exploring the dynamics of homelessness when she was a Hubert Humphrey Fellow, Evi and her colleagues founded Project Multatuli in 2021. Project Multatuli is a public service journalism initiative, dedicated to carrying out the ideals of giving a voice to the voiceless, spotlighting the marginalized, and reporting on the underreported. The organization produces data-based, deeply researched news stories. They collaborate with other news organizations, research bodies, and civil society groups that strive for democracy, human rights, social justice, environmental sustainability, and equal rights for all. Evi shares the story with us of how she came to create Project Multatuli, and how the collective is using innovative approaches to produce journalism aligned with their mission to serve the underreported, and hold power accountable. We discussed the project's strategies to disrupt dominant practices in Indonesia's media industry, and the challenges of creating a work culture and societal structures that support truly inclusive media production. Evi, Welcome to Fulbright Forward. I'm very excited to have you here today to talk about the public service journalism initiative that you co founded called Project Multatuli. You've had a long career in journalism, in Indonesia from your days as a student at Gadjah Mada University, writing for activist student publications, to serving as a reporter and later the Managing Editor of the Jakarta Post one of the longest running and well respected English language newspapers in Indonesia. So can you just tell us a little bit about the journey of your career and how it led you to start Project Multatuli?
Evi Mariani: Hi, Kelli, thank you for inviting me to this podcast, thinking maybe I can say that I began when I was still in the university. My undergrad degree, I finished my undergrad degree in Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. My major is Communication Studies in social and political school in the university. At the time, I joined the student press there, not exactly as a writer, more like as a layout author and fundraiser and stuff like that. But it was during the New Order era in the Suharto regime, the authoritarian regime, and student press at the time played kind of like a big role because, as an alternative media, because the big media outlets, they're like, often getting calls from, I identify people, but they all know who, who's calling, usually the military or intelligence officer, calling the newsrooms stopping them to to write this and that. So there was no freedom of the press during the uh, Suharto era. Journalists also went to jail. A lot in the during that era. So student press played a role is somewhat like an alternative. Alternative voice, yeah. For example, when I began in the university in 1994, and the first edition I help publish was about the 1965 communist cleansing, which like, maybe, you know, like killed at least 500,000 people or some estimates goes to 2 million people. There was no way the media at that time would would, would be there to, to, to publish that kind of story. So, so that was probably not exactly my career, but my brush with journalism began with sort of like a clandestine, clandestine publication by by socio political students. So, when I graduated from university in early 2000, I decided that, okay, I'll, I'll pick journalism as my life choice. After like, looking for a lot of, for jobs in a lot of media outlets, the Jakarta Post, accepted me as a cub reporter in 2002. So there, I think, since then, I was like, sort of like maybe a homegrown journalist, the Post from 2002. And then I left the Post only for 11 months for The Conversation, Indonesia, to launch The Conversation in Asia. And then I went back in 2018, as a managing editor. And then I left The Post again in January 2021. Because they make a drastic policy of cutting the workforce by 70%. And then I sort of like I don't share their vision about the future of journalism. So I founded Project Multatuli with three other friends, all of them journalists. Before I resigned from the Post at the end of 2020, I already, we were already in talks, yeah, with with the journalists that later founded the project. And that will you were already in talks and a lot of discussions about okay, let's, let's do, let's do something different. Let's, let's make something, let's make a media outlet that really stay true to the public, because we saw that there is a common practice in Indonesian media industry is to find money from the politically wired tycoons, or support oligarchs, or, or fully kowtow to the market forces as in algorithm and clicks, clicks, clicks, that leads to the phenomenon called dumbing down the news. So there are two dominant business models that we see that if somehow serves not the public, but more the elites. And then they're more Jakarta centric, because that's where all the money is. And it's more elite, serving the elite more. And also male centric. Yeah. So we want to challenge that, we want to disrupt that that practice. So we think that okay, oh, maybe the Post is not my place anymore. But if I want to do something in journalism, I won't, I won't make a competitor to the Jakarta Post, but I will make something entirely different. So we decided that okay, let's make a niche media, niche in a way that because we are still a national national media, we call ourselves national media, not not local media. And we're bilingual. So we also serve readers from from outside Indonesia, but niche in a way that we we make sure that our articles address the information inequality that we see is happening in Indonesia. As I say before, the dominant practice is male centric, Jakarta centric, and elite serving. So there are lots and lots of communities in Indonesia, that never been reported in the media, or even though they are reported, like the LGBT communities, for example, they are misunderstood and even persecuted, I think. So what we want to do is to disrupt that practice. And we serve the underreported and we hold power accountable. Like we are really serious about that, because also the dominant business model is asking money from the oligarchs. Of course they are not really serious about holding power accountable. So that's what we've seen so far. So that's how I came from, from from a bumbling student journalist to do this. Now I'm now an Executive Director of Project Multatuli.
Kelli Swazey: It's interesting that you are comparing you know, the time when you started as a student when things were still under the authoritarian rule and censorship was very direct. And you're now saying that it's not so much direct censorship, but the market and sort of the elite forces which control what we hear about and see in the media. And of course, we're seeing this happen all over the world, right? So I wanted to ask for our listeners who aren't familiar with the name 'Multatuli', about how you came to choose this name for your journalism collective. So project multitools takes its name from the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker, who wrote the novel Max Havelaar. It's a novel that was published in 1860 that holds an important place in the canon of colonial literature of Southeast Asia, as it depicts the suffering that local populations endured during the colonial period in the Dutch East Indies, what we today know is Indonesia. So what was the motivation for taking this name for your project?
Evi Mariani: Okay, that's, well, the story of the name. It's apparently it's not easy to name something! Oh, my God, there was like a months and months of debates between us like the founders, also the first volunteers. Yeah, we, oh, we have a lot of young young journalists as volunteers so. So we were trying to get names and we look around. And then we also got inspired a lot by US media outlets. One, one of our biggest inspiration is actually ProPublica. Texas Tribune as well, as a model, the business model, but of course, one name came across when we search for name is Marshall Project. And, okay, last name, name it like Marshall Project, pick, pick a name, pick a name of someone. So we were thinking, Okay, let's find a name of a woman journalist in Indonesia. But we couldn't find any that is quite appealing to us. There was one but and then we said, maybe not really. So that's why we pick a male, a white male, just Multatuli as, as, the name is because he's I think, he's, he's, his some of this, besides, he received a lot of criticism actually. And we've we are fully aware that he is white and he is male. But he's, he's a privileged person writing about injustice in Indonesia during the colonial times, and Pramoedya Ananta Toer totally - he's, he's one of the globally renowned Indonesian authors, made a review about his book on New York Times. And he called the book the book that killed colonialism. That appeals a lot to us because yeah, that's, that's the spirit we want to, we want to that inspired the spirit that inspires serving the underreported writing about injustice. And he's very passionate about that. So we're like thinking, okay, okay. And then out of like, we ran out of other options. We're already like, out, so to say, our, at our ends with, so it's just like, Okay, I think this is the best do anyone who's who's who objects to this name? Do you have better options at the time? None of them have better options. So yes, we we use project muda totally, it's a mouthful name kinda long. And also, we, and afterwards we receive criticisms, why you choose Multatuli, he's, he's kinda controversial and so on. But and then we think that yes, he is controversial, but still his book opens up, opens up a lot of Dutch people's eyes about what was happening in in the Dutch Indies at that time. And also, we see that the, the injustice inflict, the injustice inflicted by colonialism is still happening now. So his, his spirit moved to the spirit in writing, holding power accountable. Writing about what happened before his eyes is still something I think is relevant today.
Kelli Swazey: And it's a name I think that that represents in some way what you are trying to do, in the sense that you are a bilingual publication and Project Multatuli is something that's recognized both in Indonesia as, as this important piece of literature and discussion about power and colonialism, and also recognized in places outside of Indonesia, because he wasn't from Indonesia originally, he was Dutch. So it's interesting in that way too, that it sort of aligns with, with what you were doing and what you're representing in your project.
Evi Mariani: Yes, thank you for pointing that out. Because I think yes, we also because, because some of us are from the Jakarta Post. So we kind of like want to have this global connection, you know, so yeah, we choose English name, even though we we say that we serve the underreported that that probably don't don't understand, at least maybe. But yes, it's a bit contradictory, but, but I think it's okay. I think it's okay, I'm kinda like open to like, maybe change the name to Project Marsinah. If you know what, later labor activists who died during the New Order, because she, she fought for for the rights of of workers. So Project M or later, maybe we can change it. It's, we are not very religious about that name. Although we recognize his, his virtues, that as an inspiration. He's there, his inspiration, is still, we respect that.
Kelli Swazey: When you were talking earlier about how journalism has changed to some degree in Indonesia, since when you started as a student, journalism student at Gadjah Mada. I was just wondering if in your time at the Jakarta Post, were there any barriers that you encountered covering issues of historically marginalized people and communities that really stood out to you, or any particular stories that you felt or remember that mainstream media could have approached better? I know, you mentioned earlier things covering the LGBTQ+ community in Indonesia. But if there's anything that that really sort of stood out to you, during the course of your time at the Jakarta Post that made you think we need to do something different in journalism, or provide an alternative outlet to cover these stories, either stories that aren't covered or cover stories in a different kind of way?
Evi Mariani: Yes, so, so the Post or has this strong, strong standpoint about human rights, about pluralism, diversity, minority rights. So the Post is one of the one of the best media outlets in Indonesia that talks about for example, gender equality, LGBT rights, religious minority rights. We're, we're, up until now, I think the Post is still one of the leading media outlets in Indonesia, that speaks about those those issues. But when it comes to rural issues, issues outside Jakarta, in remote areas, and for people, even in Jakarta. There are a lot of editors, a lot of my bosses were a little not very warm to the idea, like workers rights, workers when they protest on the street. It's not in our DNA to like, pay attention to, to labor rights. And most of our readers like to read the business, the business pages, and the business pages is more like leaning to corporate. Macroeconomics, and stories about like, people's economy, like small and micro scale businesses, are also not in the post DNA. And I think not just the Post, some other media also kind of have this what I call earlier as serving the elite more. So that's I think the problem not only the Post, but also because if you talk about like workers rights, sometimes media owners will say oh, it will scare away advertisers. If you talk too much about it and the owners of media outlets, they are the employers who sometimes get, get the at the end of the protests by laborers. For example, personally for myself from 2015 to 2017. That leads to my resignation for 11 months from the Post, it was a personal fight for me, for the forced evictions issue. Although yes, I managed to publish a lot of stories that, that as much as we could do to reduce the middle class and upper class bias against those poor urban poor people who got forced full evictions from the city administration. That was a personal battle that affected my career a lot actually, the period when my my integrity as a journalist, what I believe in as a journalist is being questioned, and eventually by myself, like I was second, second guessing myself a lot. So I read again this Bill Kovach, and steel book to like to really, what am I doing wrong? Because, because they told me you, you are not a journalist, you're more like an activist or whatever. But, and then I'll question them. I'm a homegrown journalist, I grew up at the Post. You defend gender equality, no one called him an activist. You defend human rights in Papua, you defend human rights in East Timor at the time East Timor now Timor Leste. In Aceh. You fight about the rights, LGBT communities, religious minorities as well. No one called these journalists, activists, but when I try to like, amplify the voice of the urban poor, poor people, why why do you call me an activist? So that was a really like a struggle that's, I'm kind of like still, you know, you can. People can ask me 10 times about this. I'm still really emotional about this. It was the time when Fulbright AMINEF celebrated the 50th Anniversary, I think, but they contacted the journalist, Her name is Margaret Cole. And I was picked as one of the one of sort of like Fulbright alumni that was profiled in your book. I met Margaret Cohen. At the time of when I was like, kind of second guessing myself. I was a little bit defensive and sometimes kind of like apologetic why I visited this this urban campaign, for example, why I I interview a lot of urban poor, so that was that was really hard for me. So when when we founded Project Multatuli, my friend said, Okay, we serve the underreported. I was like, kinda like, okay, okay, that's good. It didn't come from me. Exactly. Because I was second guessing myself a lot. Yeah. So it actually came from the other journalists, let's serve the underreported including urban poor. Okay, that's, that's more like, Ah, I think a lot more of my, my cup of tea, kind of sort of when I, when we started Project Multatuli, and we are really serious about serving the underreported. I kind of feel personally very liberated as a journalist. And I stopped second guessing myself. No, it is journalism.
Kelli Swazey: I feel that the strategy of calling people an activist rather than a journalist is also a strategy of silencing sometimes in this context, if you if you are standing up for certain things, if you're if you are trying to cover stories that perhaps, you know, disturb the status quo, or the elite, then calling you an activist says, Oh, well, you're not really serious about being objective in journalism. And I think that's a conversation that many of us are having about, you know, what does it mean, really, to do any kind of documentation of people's stories in a way that we are paying attention to structural injustice? You know, can we be, as you've asked in your writing, sitting at a comfortable distance, and still being relevant as people who either document through film or through research through different kinds of media? Is that even possible today? Or do we have to take another approach? And I think that this is something that a lot of us who have gone through the Fulbright Program, who are who are people who are interested in, in in kind of like thinking about the way that humans are interact and uncovering the stories of the world really grapple with, you know, what is our role as researchers as document, people who are doing documenting and things like that? So do you have any, like sort of advice, I guess, in a way, or, or what is the approach that Project Multatuli has taken that that that is maybe enabling to to answer some of these questions or to address this kind of ethical questions that we have about what we're doing when we're covering the stories of other people?
Evi Mariani: It's exactly Kelli, what you said is right. Later, I learned that a lot of journalist globally who writes a lot about women issues about sexual abuse or domestic abuse victims are also called activists, by the men. The men who don't like these people to write in a different perspective, and also you write about what they call 'objective' is actually very politically, like politically laden in the, in the hands of the powerful. So when few journalists try to yes, disrupting the status quo, challenging the status quo, they try to like, you're not objective enough. You're not a journalist, you're an activist. Yes. Later I learned about that, I think it's, it's not it's it is no longer object or the meaning of objective, the meaning of balance. It's not something that we should just accept from the powerful. Yeah, so far. What I use is, what is the definition of objective is unwittingly I think I use their definition of the powerful people who like to, to maintain the status quo. So we have to be brave enough, I think, to challenge those misconceptions about what is objective? Because here, you you know, that people also now question "both sides ism", and stuff like that, right? What is called fair in all our articles or writings or journalism products do not, they are not in a vacuum, right? They are not in a fair world, they don't, we don't deliver them to into a world that is fair, it is an unfair world, for a lot of people. like in the United States, I think most media outlets is unfair to people people of color, right? So you cannot really say you have to be objective by "both sides ism", only, because it assumes that you have a level playing field. So you have to publish journalism that is fair, still comprehensive in in certain information, not only like interviewing only only if you can call it one side, two sides, three sides, whatever. But you have to be actively addressing the inequality have to be aware that when you write something, when you do a reportage that you write it in a situation that is not fair. So you have to make sure your work tips the balance a little bit so it makes it a level that makes the level playing field or the playing field more level than before. So if you're like very religious about objectivism, both side ism, your journalistic piece will, will not change anything. And I am not like those of my one of my seniors told us cub reporters when when I heard about this, this, this sort of like an analogy or something, I'll be proud of being a journalist, because you can witness you can be in the front seat of history in the making. But and then I was thinking that when the history unfolding before your eyes, is not just it's not fear, and you know, you have the power to do something about that. Are you going to sit still in that front seat? Or are you going to make also, making history so it it rings true in women's movement? I think I was involved in a collaborative journalism, journalism work with maybe a dozen other journalists from, from for media, I was still at a Jakarta Post, to reveal the hidden crimes of sexual abuse in universities. And we were very aware and we boldy, we boldly take the step to like we use the victim's perspective and of course a lot of men saying that you're not fair you should interview the men, you, shouldn't give the suspects also like as a space proportional to also the victims? I said no. no, I'm kinda like bolder about this when it comes to gender equality. I said no, because it's, it's already the world is it's very not fair to the victims. So if we produce something that is making those men and suspects happy, we don't change anything, we don't reduce sexual abuse. And why not? Why not journalists? Not just sitting in front, but also we actively involved. Why not?
Kelli Swazey: Yeah, these claims of objectivity, as you say, that don't recognize the inequality and inequity of societies, it's a way of sort of hiding behind anything "Oh, no, we have to see sort of both sides and balance it out" without recognizing the privileged position in which many of these journalists come from. And so your point is very well made that you know, sometimes this idea of telling the both sides of the story doesn't really recognize the context in which these things unfold these unequal playing fields. One of the interesting conversations that we've been having at Fulbright, in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion is kind of talking also about the need for better representation in many ways. And representation in media has been something that we've discussed on many of the episodes of this podcast. One of the things that I think has been really clear to me and working in Indonesia these last years is that the need for better representation in the media really has to be grounded in more inclusive and equitable media production, you know that it can't just be a certain small group of elite people who are telling the stories we have to make, you know, the platform is more available, so people can actually tell their own stories and tell things from their perspective. So I was just curious about the way in which Project Multatuli provides space for journalists and media creators that don't normally have access to write and represent their perspectives through the mainstream media outlets. You yourself, being a homegrown journalist, probably, you know, this, you are also representing someone who is telling a story from a different perspective than we hear from, you know, your sort of typical commentator in the Indonesian media market.
Evi Mariani: Yeah, it's, um, we do affirmative action for a newsroom. And what we found after we, we tried to, to, to also have a good representation of diversity and inclusion in our in our newsroom is affirmative action is not something easy. You it's not something like, as easy as, "Oh, of course, we are open, we we champion inclusivit, and we welcome anyone. No, it's not that easy. You have to do a lot to eventually achieve a really inclusive newsroom, a really diverse newsroom. There are like dozens of steps before we can reach that. So I'm not saying that our newsroom is still is already as diverse as we want. Even though we have a diversity of gender wise. And then religion wise. We have a queer team manager. Not Not that you know, but he's a team manager, but he's very active in in in like, I'm sure if we, if we make something wrong with you will remind us. We try to also make extra mile like efforts to find women journalists. But we still, I think kind of like very far behind in terms of those from the underprivileged, economically underprivileged. And then from rural areas. But yes, I believe that if you talk about diversity inclusion, yes, you cannot just say, okay, oh, we interview a lot of diverse communities. Now we we ourselves have to be diverse, because that's where true discussion, true, true editorial deliberation can can can happen right in the newsroom itself. So yeah, we're still trying to have more representation of under economically underprivileged writers, if not full time staff, then at least those who can, like contribute to us for writing opinions, or essays. So yes, we're still trying.
Kelli Swazey: Yeah, I mean, that is the challenge of when we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, it's not just having diverse people around, not just a representation, but actually a participation and one that they are free and open and feel empowered to be a part of. And that I think is the challenge sometimes when we're trying to make our organizations quote unquote, more diverse and inclusive. It's not just a surface thing. You know, it does take work and us being committed to having those difficult conversations and having people with different opinions alongside of us to do the work. And that's I think, you know, it's a challenge for all organizations now that are that are trying to do better at this, it Fullbright included in that. So that's part of the reason that we have this podcast and are trying to have these conversations to think about the ways that, you know, Fulbrighters in our program are advancing this kind of work, and also how we as a program can do it better.
Evi Mariani: I think you're right about having difficult conversations. It includes admitting to our mistakes at meetings, that, that like coming from a very privileged position, we found that the relation between us in Jakarta, the editors, with writers outside Jakarta, for example, it's also we have to change the game. We have to change the rules of how we have a work relation with with the regional contributors. So we were thinking that okay, maybe I think in we have to like increase collaborations with local media, give them the resources they need, and let them decide what to write from which angle. So that's one way we're trying to do this year. And yes, it's it's it's not easy. It's not something that I think we'll be successfull, first time we try. No, but we have to take the first steps.
Kelli Swazey: If any of our listeners here to the podcast in Indonesia are interested in writing for Project Multatuli how do they do that? How do they contact you through the website? Or if people are interested in getting involved somehow?
Evi Mariani: Yeah, they can, they can pitch their idea first to Redaksi (R-E-D-A-K-S- I @Projectmultatuli.org. and pitch the idea. And then we can talk after that with the editor directly about the idea. So we want to make more like more bottom up story ideas? Yeah, we do both. Now we do top down as well. Like, for example, we want to have this topic. Do you have any idea what was happening in your in your regions, and pitch to us we do that? Well, the problem is because a lot of regional contributors, local media is very used to the dominant practice of Jakarta, being all the decision makers and Jakarta is being like where the mone,y is where the readers are in Java. Journalists outside Java also tend to try to tailor their pitch, with the old assumption that we'll just have to like it, or we're just not like it. So I think both parties have to learn a lot about like, you know, representation, like meaningful representation. So both, not, not just us, but also both parties, they are so used to making Jakarta happy, and have assumptions of what, what makes you happy. So we, we have to first change that. Hello, we're open to anything, we don't subscribe to those set of rules that usually make, quote unquote, "happy", just go wild with your ideas. But and then when we, when we tell them that they're still what what kind of things they they, they would like to hear from us. So they still you know, it's, it's something it's not something you can change overnight. There is there's a process of like you said, a difficult conversation between us as well, like, unpacking those assumptions about about what is okay, and what is not, unlearning and learning the old practices and that that I think applies both ways.
Kelli Swazey: Yeah. And it's wonderful to hear that there are initiatives like Project Multatuli totally out there that are creating the space for that to happen, because I think that those spaces are still few and far between in many of the media environments around the world. And particularly in Indonesia, which can be so center dominant or Java dominant. And you know, creating that space to even have those conversations and to give people in other regions of the country that opportunity is really an important step forward to making a more even playing field for media and people sharing their stories from different parts of Indonesia. Evi, thank you so much for sharing with us today about the project and about your journey as a journalist and a Fulbrighter to start in this project. I do hope that some of our listeners who are listening here in Indonesia take you up on the offer and submit their pitches for Project Multatuli. Really. Thanks so much for your time today.
Evi Mariani: Thank you Kelli for making time to talk to me and about Project Multituli. Thanks so much for helping us promote our cause.
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