The rise of digital media carried with it the promise of democratization in the ways in which knowledge is produced, distributed, and consumed, and the ways in which the people themselves can directly and actively participate in media’s making. Digital media is not an unmixed blessing, as shown in today’s extreme fragmentation in the field, the distressing realities of digitally-aided manipulation, “false news,” and censorship. Still, it remains full of possibilities for widening democratic space.
In Indonesia, there is excitement and hope in the media venture called WATCHDOC MEDIA MANDIRI or WATCHDOC (from “watchdog” + “documentary”), that combines the tools of investigative journalism, documentary filmmaking, and digital technology. WATCHDOC's advocacy is to create public awareness of such issues as human rights, social justice, and the environment. The private audiovisual production company was incorporated in 2011 by two remarkable individuals, Dandhy Laksono and Andhy Panca Kurniawan, both with journalism backgrounds and a passion for social causes. Disenchanted with mainstream broadcast TV—the concentration of media ownership, the premium on ratings, advertising, and revenues, the merchandising of entertainment and news—Laksono and Kurniawan yearned for an independent, people-based, and socially responsible media.
Strongly embedded in civil society, WATCHDOC draws its material and themes from issues of public concern that have not been treated adequately in mainstream media or presented from a people’s perspective. With a lean permanent staff of fifteen, WATCHDOC sees itself as a movement and not just a content creator. To work independently and reach the greatest number of people, it taps non-traditional and emerging platforms and is not fixated on just a single distribution strategy. Using its independently-produced advocacy films, WATCHDOC builds a robust audience through offline distribution, social media, and other alternative channels including partnerships with non-government organizations to screen films in remote, indigenous communities. WATCHDOC also cultivates logistical and funding support through collaborations and cross-subsidies with similarly-minded groups and institutions.
In less than a decade of existence, through its two YouTube channels and other platforms, WATCHDOC has produced and distributed over 150 film titles that average two hundred thousand viewers per video. Eight of its documentaries have each attracted more than one million views. One of them, called Sexy Killers, a documentary on the coal mining industry’s links with Indonesia’s political establishment, is a viral hit, getting thirty six million views as of July 2021.
The group’s adventurous spirit is exemplified by a major project in 2015 called Expedisi Indonesia Biru (Blue Indonesia Expedition), in which Laksono and co-filmmaker Suparta Arz went on a motorbike journey across Indonesia for a year, studying and recording what was happening to ordinary citizens like farmers, fishermen, and indigenous peoples. The journey eventually resulted in a twelve-part documentary film series, exposing such problems as the impact on the environment of the palm oil industry, the fight of locals against the construction of a cement factory in Central Java, and other issues that received a lot of attention from government and the public.
A great part of WATCHDOC’s influence is the credibility it enjoys because of its reputation for journalistic integrity; they have refused bribes or partnerships with known violators of human rights and environmental laws. It sticks to basics, doing strongly-researched, fact-based, quality work. It builds a constituency by staying close to its audience, holding pre-screenings and group discussions with non-government organizations and local communities. WATCHDOC is a young organization and knows societies are not changed overnight. As Laksono says, “We realize the goal is still very far away. Even though the macro-policy has not changed, if these small things become a movement, gradually it will be strong.”
In electing WATCHDOC MEDIA MANDIRI to receive the 2021 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes its highly principled crusade for an independent media organization, its energetic use of investigative journalism, documentary filmmaking, and digital technology in its effort to transform Indonesia’s media landscape, and its commitment to a vision of the people themselves as makers of media and shapers of their own world.