19 Mar 2020

Jessica Washington on finding 'light and shade' of Indonesia

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Former Asia Reporting Fellow and Al Jazeera journalist Jessica Washington has had a busy start to 2020. After covering the devastating bushfires over the Australian summer, she moved to Jakarta.

We caught up with Jessica to hear more about her recent work in Australia and Indonesia.

You’ve recently moved from Sydney to Jakarta with Al Jazeera. What are your first impressions of reporting in Indonesia? How does it differ from reporting in Australia?

There is so much ground to cover and a great variety of stories to keep our team busy. I am lucky to work alongside an incredible team and I learn so much from my producer, Utet, everyday. In a new posting, there are different ways of approaching the job, even some of the basics of journalism — researching, finding stories, getting access, and doing interviews. There are slight variations to how I would operate in Australia, but ultimately, the goal is still the same: to find out what’s happening and share that with our audience.

Can you tell us about some of the stories you’ve reported on since arriving?

The big story right now is obviously the coronavirus outbreak. Al Jazeera has correspondents on the ground in around 80 countries. What we do in Indonesia is just one part of a larger effort by our colleagues to cover this outbreak all over the world. A few weeks ago, we went to Natuna, where the students evacuated from Wuhan were in quarantine, and we recently got back from a trip to Bali, looking at the impact of the virus there.

Another story that had people talking here was the government’s decision to not allow citizens who left Indonesia to join ISIL to return. Now that the decision has been made, we will continue to monitor this story and see how it pans out.

Apart from the hard news pieces, there are so many stories to tell in Indonesia. We had the pleasure of meeting two teenage sisters who have led the push against plastic in Bali. On that same deployment, we also travelled along Bali’s east coast, to shoot a story about the growing sustainable pearl industry. A mix of light and shade is important and part of creating an accurate portrayal of any country.

Image: Interviewing teenage sisters who are leading an anti-plastic push in Bali

Image: Interviewing teenage sisters who are leading an anti-plastic push in Bali.

You were reporting on the bushfires for AJ before you left Australia. What were some of the challenges reporting from those fire-affected areas?

We had to report the fires for an international audience — there was a huge amount of interest in what was happening and why. There were technical issues, as you would expect, but the main challenge is doing justice to a story that takes place on such a huge scale, without losing sight of the individuals who are feeling its impact.

In Batemans Bay, we stayed in the same spot where many of the evacuees were staying. The night the power went out (it didn’t come back for days) I scripted and cameraman Ray Jones edited completely in the dark, until two young siblings brought us a candle. This was just one example of the kindness we saw and experienced on the ground.

Image: Working by candlelight at Batemans Bay.

Image: Working by candlelight at Batemans Bay.

We met a family who lost most of their apple orchard in the fires. The smell of thousands of charred apples isn’t one I will forget. We also met an elderly couple prepared to shelter from the flames in an underground bunker. It was sad to see people living in fear like that. And the young family who stayed opposite to us, their house burned down, and every night, I could hear the children coughing because of the smoke and ash.

These fires impacted so many Australians and took so much from so many. I hope we were able to convey the vast scale of the devastation, the fear, loss and trauma, and how that manifested differently for every person who was impacted by this disaster.

Image: Filing from Mogo during the bushfires.

Image: Filing from Mogo during the bushfires.

Do you have any predictions about what will be the biggest stories from your patch in 2020?

There are the developments that we can monitor — the progress on planning for the new capital will be an interesting one to watch, as well as the repatriation of the children of Indonesian ISIL fighters, and much more. The impact of the coronavirus is still being felt, and we cannot be certain how it will play out.

But this is a huge archipelago, and a very dynamic region. There is so much happening here in any given week, we just have to be ready to go when news breaks.

Jessica Washington is a correspondent for Al Jazeera. She is based in Jakarta. Jessica participated in the Judith Neilson Institute's first Asia Reporting Fellowship in 2019. The fellowship is conducted in partnership with the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.