Harry Surjadi
Ashoka Fellow since 2015   |   Indonesia

Harry Surjadi

Indigenous people living in remote areas can be marginalized by their lack of access to communication and information. At the same time, the government claims an inability to reach them. Harry Surjadi…
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This description of Harry Surjadi's work was prepared when Harry Surjadi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Indigenous people living in remote areas can be marginalized by their lack of access to communication and information. At the same time, the government claims an inability to reach them. Harry Surjadi breaks through the barrier with his Information Broker program. Having developed a groundbreaking news channel using mobile and Frontline SMS texting, Harry has trained more than 500 indigenous people as journalists through this new platform of citizen journalism.

The New Idea

Harry Surjadi created a system of information access for indigenous people using cellular phone text messaging and phone based calling. Each participating community sends a trusted member to be trained as a Citizen Journalist, also called an “Information Broker” (IB). A Citizen Journalist, according to Harry, is a journalist that works for the public interest, not for media interests. Each IB is trained in what information is worth sharing, using the principles of the five W’s (who, what, where, when, why), and what impact is to be expected from doing so. The IBs are also trained in using Global Positioning System (GPS).

Harry has recruited more than 500 Citizen Journalists from West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan. RuaiTV, a local television station in West Kalimantan, hosts a special text-based platform for the news gathered by the IBs, called RuaiSMS. RuaiTV will accept any information that IBs send, and an editorial team decides which stories to spread to the customer subscribers via SMS text. In any given week, RuaiTV receives up to seven text messages with relevant news events, which they also run on their website. There are 600 individuals who subscribe to RuaiSMS, 100 among them being government officials, who are carefully selected by the media partner to ensure maximum relevance and impact. This is an alternative method for the government to receive direct information from its public and to respond quickly to situations.

Harry’s partnerships with key organizations are strategically intentioned as it is in the power of these partnerships that sets his work apart from social media campaigns. The strength of Information Broker’s SMS lay in the partnerships with trusted and impartial news sources, which are more likely to be acknowledged by the government. Harry Surjadi works closely not only with RuaiTV but also with REDD+ to monitor land-use, physical changes of the forest, as well as social and economic changes. This year, Harry managed to involve mainstream media, including the national newspapers Tempo and Tribun. They have branches in Sumatera and Kalimantan, to use the service of the information brokers. Tempo and World Wildlife Fund Indonesia Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) have agreed to involve information brokers for environmental issues. Through these partners, Harry can also ensure that the Information Brokers themselves remain anonymous, and therefore protected against potential backlash from vested interest and political parties.

The Problem

Indigenous People in Indonesia are facing exploitation and are marginalized by lack of access to information and government programs. Mainstream media in Indonesia struggles to create connections with individuals in remote areas.

Furthermore, indigenous peoples in remote areas face environmental degradation, yet is not considered an important subject by the mainstream media. The front pages of said media focus on political and economic issues faced by big cities.
In early 2005, the mainstream media began to accept public participation in their news production. Some outlets used the internet and smartphones to let the public report events, such as traffic accidents or traffic jams. However, this switch to citizen participation occurred only in the big cities.

People in remote areas remained left behind from participation in knowledge production because they were only passive receivers of the news. However, living in remote areas does not preclude an individual from the ability to connect virtually. Indonesia is the fourth largest cellular phone user in the world, with a number of 250,100,000 users in 2012.

While mainstream media often complain that they lack sources for news gathering in remote areas, cellular phones are emerging as a potential conduit.

The Strategy

Harry Surjadi is a long time journalist. Using mobile phone connectivity, Harry breaks the isolation of indigenous people from the news bubble created in larger Indonesian cities. Through strategic partnerships with major media groups, rural communities become the subject of the news stories and shift the journalistic focus towards social and environmental issues. Harry is also adding a level of integrity to Citizen Journalism by teaching journalism ethics to the community and channeling these stories through reputable news agencies.

Information Brokers send text messages to a “host” – usually a media outlet like RuaiTV or Tempo. The host fact checks the information, and either develops a news feature to be broadcast on their TV station, or forwards the edited and fact-checked message to their slew of subscribers via SMS. The signature on the SMS belongs to the host, protecting the identity of the information broker themselves. Because the model ensures fact-checking by a trained professional journalist before it is sent out and broadcast, it has built trust with the receivers of the message as news that goes beyond pure social media campaigns that are built solely people`s opinions.
Harry chose RuaiTV as his first media partner in 2011, largely because of the local television outlet’s previous coverage of land disputes. The communities with whom Harry partnered, each sent a selected member to receive training on journalistic skills, and the media group was trained to integrate frontline SMS technology.
To maintain journalistic integrity in the operation, information brokers firstly must attend a two-day training workshop where they learn the repercussions of inaccurate reporting. Secondly, Information Brokers can only report on those events they have witnessed themselves, or can share interviews they have conducted with actors on the ground. Thirdly, editors are responsible for verifying all facts shared by information brokers, If the editor senses that something is inaccurate, they can call other information brokers in the same areas to double check the information reported. This explains why there are at least two information brokers in each community. In their first year, Harry and the RuaiTV editorial staff provided basic journalism training to 200 information brokers. For RuaiTV, the information brokers become assets for choice content.

To begin, RuaiTV blasted content to 1000 subscribers for 150 Indonesian Rupees per SMS, which is paid for by RuaiTV. This proved to be too costly. With six to seven informational text messages received from brokers each month, RuaiTV and Harry had to strategize once again how to best present the information. They cut the number of subscribers to 600, including the 100 who were government officials, police members, and respected NGO leaders. These messages are also displayed on the RuaiSMS website as news tickers.

Stefanus Masiun, the executive director of RuaiTV has said that RuaiSMS, a prime time program, is a favorite among viewers. It brings the media and the audience closer together. Viewers can watch news about their community, videos sent by their peers, and responses from vested interests. Because RuaiSMS has won good ratings, it demonstrates that a market exists in the mainstream media for Citizen Journalism. The management of RuaiTV wants to expand the program, by broadcasting through satellite, so it can be viewed not only in West Kalimantan but also in Malaysia and Sulawesi Island.

The first case solved by the IB program was a conflict involving the indigenous people of Dayak Kanayatan in Ampaning, Kubu Raya Region. This group had fought for the return of their land from corporate hands since 1997. Sintang Raya Palm oil company promised to return the land to the indigenous people three years later, in 2000. Andrianusm, the indigenous group leader, sent a text out demanding the oil company to keep its promise. RuaiTV forwarded the text to 1000 subscribers, including government officials, strengthening the information with their supplemental TV report, also through repeated broadcasting. That same month, the head of the Police Department in West Kalimantan Province offered to mediate the conflict, and the palm oil company finally fulfilled their long-time promise to return the land. The indigenous people received 100 hectares of land, opening up the access from their isolation in Kampung to the city of Pontianak, thereby increasing the recruitment of indigenous workers. Adrianus said that his people previously fought with the traditional weapon of Parang, but now they needed only text messages that cost 100 rupiahs per text to solve their problems.

In 2014, another of the Information Broker programs was able to move forward a land dispute case between the community of Seruat in West Kalimantan and Sintang Raya Palm Oil Company. With RuaiTV working to expose the issue, the company is now forbidden to seize more land. Still, disputes continue in the field. A community member was accused of burning the company’s palm trees, however, there was no clear evidence for the case. Abdul Majid, the Information Broker conducted the investigation, reported to RuaiTV and mediated with the police headquarters in Jakarta. The police released the community member and the Information Broker keeps abreast of future disputes that may occur.

Not all of the hundreds of community members who are trained to be IB’s become active and start sending information to the media, because they understand that they need to use the tool strategically. Those who are active like Abdul Majid become contributors for other media outside RuaiTV, and also get paid for their work.
Harry also works with Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and also National Program for Community Empowerment (PPMn). Other partners include Mercy Corps and mainstream media like Tempo. Harry has ensured commitment among these organizations to train more information brokers, to ensure the sustainability of his program.

Harry realized that the developing of an Information broker depends on how mobile phone technology evolves, both in terms of innovation and network availability. For example, there is the potential to develop mobile applications for information brokers with smartphones to allow quicker and easier information transmission. Last year he integrated the OpenIR project with information brokers model in Central Kalimantan to compile a robust set of visual documentation to support efforts in land disputes. Harry’s dream is to train one million information brokers throughout Indonesia who can belong to one big network.

The Person

Harry is the first of six siblings. His father was an elementary school teacher then moved to work with an export-import company until he died from a car accident right after Harry graduated from high school. When he wanted to continue his studies in college, his main consideration was where he could pay the cheapest tuition. He wanted to study architecture and was accepted for Mechanical Farming at the Institute of Farming in Bogor; it was the closest subject to architecture. When he graduated from college, his seniors offered him work with Trubus, an NGO magazine for farming. It was his first lesson in journalism and it fueled his passion in writing.
In 1990, Harry moved to the bigger media Group, Gramedia, to work as an environment and technology journalist. He was put in touch with dozens of environmental NGOs that influenced his work. Seven years later, he initiated a news website for Gramedia, Kompas.com. In 1999, Harry moved from Kompas.com and built another news site called Astaga.com. He knew early on that technology would force news media to adapt in new ways.

In 2000, he decided to start working freelance so he could choose the subjects he would work with. Given his background as an environmental journalist, he could easily work with the Ministry of Environmental NGOs, writing on environmental issues for the mainstream media. He initiated SIEJ – Society of Indonesia Environment Journalist - in 2007 after three years preparing to create the organization. In 2008, Greenpeace International appointed him as part of the Board of Directors to set up their Greenpeace Indonesia office.

Harry has offered a lot of critique to mainstream media, stating that it follows the interest of capital owners rather than public needs, especially during election time. This is why he started SIEJ and the reason why he won the Knight Fellowship from 2007 to 2008. He won the second Knight Fellowship in 2011 to fund his Information Brokers work. In 2013, Harry won the Communication of Social Change Award from Centre for Communication and Social Change at the University of Queensland School of Journalism and Communication.

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