New Mobile SMS Service Helps Indonesian Villagers Hold Company Accountable

Dec 12011

The first message came by text on October 17 from a cell phone in rural Indonesia, and it quickly got results – a surprising and encouraging turn of events for the new citizen journalist who sent it.

“One hundred residents of Sei Enau village … are defending their lands,” it read in the native Indonesian language. It was the very first SMS message sent through a new communications system developed by Knight International Journalism Fellow Harry Surjadi, in partnership with Ruai TV and Internews. The system enables citizen journalists trained by Surjadi to text reports to RuaiSMS where they are confirmed and then sent via text message to subscribers, who include other villagers and citizen journalists as well as police and government officials.

The message came from Adrianus Adam Tekol, a newly trained citizen journalist who lives in the village about three hours from the city of Pontianak, where Ruai TV is located. He reported that local villagers were protesting a company they felt was violating its legal obligations to hire local villagers, repair damaged roads and turn over some property to area residents in exchange for use of the land.

Within three days, residents managed to get a rare meeting with the company. Police and government officials were also present. Tekol credits the SMS system with building public pressure on the company to agree to the meeting. It was penalized, and has begun recruiting local workers and making needed road repairs.

“Before, we negotiated with a sword,” Tekol said, referring to the occasional violence between villagers and companies arguing over land use. “Now we negotiate with a cell phone.”

“This was an important story because until now indigenous people have not had a voice, have not been able to interact with mainstream media or have any platform for expressing their concerns,” said Surjadi. “Now, as more and more people learn how to send messages, and begin to understand what it is to be a citizen journalist, they have a new kind of power. They are better able to defend themselves, and to communicate when there are problems to be addressed.”

The new service launched in mid-October. So far a total of 106 citizen journalists have been trained, and 170 subscribers are signed up for the service.

“We expect to get more every day,” Surjadi said. “As the service grows, we expect more people to sign up and start using it.”