Dyna Rochmyaningsih built her science journalism career from the rural Indonesian province of North Sumatra, armed with a desire to communicate the complex environmental and political forces that imperil Indonesia’s ecosystem — and an internet connection.
That internet connection, the only one in her village when Rochmyaningsih was establishing herself as a science writer 10 years ago, proved a precious resource. She began emailing editors, pitching stories, and learning about the reporting process through trial and error. One of her first stories was published by the Science Development Network and republished in The Guardian. Her work has since appeared in multiple publications, including Science Magazine, Nature, BBC Future, Mongabay, The Christian Science Monitor, and Undark.
Rochmyaningsih’s reporting has focused on the environmental crisis in Indonesia, where deforestation is threatening the country’s vast biodiversity and colliding with climate change to fuel wildfires. And she has covered what she describes as a large-scale effort by the Indonesian government to skew and curtail environmental research.
This year, Rochmyaningsih is spending time at MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. In a recent interview she spoke about the importance of understanding the social contexts of science and how she approaches reporting in a country where scientists fear political intrusions into their work. (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Sarah Hopkins: Your reporting is very focused on science in society. You don’t just view science as a topic that emerges from a laboratory — pure and objective. You often address the ways in which scientific research interacts with social forces like nationalism or politics. Why have you taken that particular angle?
Dyna Rochmyaningsih: I was initially amazed by science only because of the science per se — like you say, science in the laboratory, and ideas that scientists were finding. But when I tried to report on science in Indonesia, it was really connected to the socio-political element. I think science itself is a social practice, and scientists themselves are part of social systems. And when we report on science as connected to socio-political elements, it helps us to create a connection with the public and show them why they should care. We can present them relevant stories.
There’s an interesting phenomenon happening in Indonesia right now. In Indonesian media, science journalism used to be very rudimentary, and only very few newspapers, probably only two newspapers, had a science page. Most science stories were translations of scientific discoveries from the developed world, or fun facts or something like that. It wasn’t reporting on what was happening in society.
But in the last few years, the scientific community has received attention because the Indonesian government endorsed a law on science and technology that they use as an instrument to suppress science and to control academia. This law has enabled the development of a “superbody,” an agency just below the president, which is led by the most prominent political figure in Indonesia right now. So now, Indonesian newspapers and media are doing really great journalism, and their interest is to hold the powerful accountable. The superbody has become the object of their reporting.
Soon, we started hearing stories of the elimination of research centers, like the Eijkman Molecular Biology Research Center in Jakarta. And soon enough, when people started relating science with politics, people realized how important science actually is, and they realized that we are losing precious research agencies in Indonesia. We at the Society of Indonesian Science Journalists are making sure these science-related stories are amplified in Indonesian media.
SH: Why do you think scientific research is perceived as such a threat to the Indonesian government?
DR: I think it’s closely related to ultranationalism. The current political party in power is known to be nationalistic. What I’ve found from my years of reporting is that the government wants to minimize foreign influence in Indonesian affairs. And these foreign influences are mostly in the form of research collaboration. This is specifically happening in environment and research conservation, because Indonesia plays a big role in the health of the planet. We have massive forest fires and deforestation. We have a big population and big carbon emissions. And we are also home to amazing land mammals.
In Sumatra it’s very tragic. We have elephants, rhinos, the rarest orangutan species, and their homes are disappearing. So what’s happening in Indonesia is of great interest to conservation scientists. They are asking, “How can we save the surviving mammals? How many of them are alive? Where are their critical habitats?” They are trying to find these answers. But some of the answers they’ve found do not please the government.
I wrote a story about a French ecologist who found that the total number of forest wildfires in Indonesia was much higher than what the government was reporting. And the government was really angry at that because it showed that Indonesia doesn’t have a good commitment to reduce carbon emissions. So, Indonesia sees nongovernmental research findings as something that won’t make the country look good, and they don’t like it. And in the meantime, they have their own researchers to look at the same research questions. But they are coming up with different results.
SH: How do you approach reporting when people in power are suppressing information?
DR: My approach and my reporting on the suppression of science actually come from my network of conservation scientists. They are a very, very precious source of information, especially in this dangerous and controversial field of reporting. They give me information even though some of them don’t want to be mentioned.
And Indonesian scientists talk to me about this moral dilemma they have of being silent and saving their jobs while they let the wildlife be wiped out. It’s horrible. I know that when I write a story, I’m risking their existence, their jobs. And some of them have even told me, “I cannot talk to you. If you want my comments, then make sure you can feed my wife and child.” That’s so sad and heartbreaking. But I have to write these stories. I can’t let the government do this over and over again. I can’t stay silent.
I remember after one of my pieces ran in Science Magazine, a scientist called me and scolded me, saying that I’m endangering conservation science as a whole because my writing will make the ministry carefully assess who the people are who are talking to me. He was so very afraid of losing his job that he irrationally scolded me. “Better to be silent,” he said. But other conservationists thank me for raising this and carefully protecting my sources.
SH: That’s a very difficult position to be in, between the two sides of the conservation scientists, each struggling with an impossible moral dilemma. When you find yourself in that position, who do you envision yourself writing for?
DR: I think I envision myself as writing for the earth. Humans, in my religion, are the stewardship of the earth. It’s a very, very difficult position. As journalists, we know we might hurt somebody, but it’s something inevitable. It might be bitter. But we have to reflect on ourselves and on what’s actually happening. And in environmental reporting, I think the highest order of what we’re writing to, and for, is Mother Earth. Humans are certainly the readers, but they will eventually try to save the planet, right?
Sarah Hopkins is a student in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing.