Marissa Anita trained for print journalism at Sydney but has become a prominent TV journalist in Indonesia. Interviewing some of Indonesia’s most powerful people, she is part of her country’s evolving spirit of freedom of the press.
It’s not often that Marissa Anita (MMediaPrac ’07) can walk around in public without people wanting to say hello or have their photograph taken with her. As one of Jakarta’s best-known TV journalists and presenters, recognition comes with the territory, especially since Jakarta’s population is almost twice that of Sydney.
Today is different though. Anita is sitting relaxed and unrecognised in a café in Sydney’s Newtown, thinking about how much has changed for her in the nine years since she graduated from the University of Sydney. While visiting her alma mater, Anita has engaged with the current crop of students, including talking with students attending a field school on women’s empowerment organised by the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.
As she tells her career story, she moves easily from thoughtfulness to bright laughter and even comedy voices. Anita isn’t quite as conventional as her TV publicity shots might suggest.
“When I started studying, I thought I wanted to go into print journalism,” she says. “But Sydney taught me about all kinds of media and, going back to Jakarta, my first job offer came from TV, so that’s how it started for me.”
That offer came barely two months after graduation from Metro TV, Indonesia’s first 24-hour news channel. Her new employers made very little allowance for Anita’s new-graduate status. “I remember when they wanted me to do a live report from the anti-graft commission,” she says. “There was no training, it was go – do a live report now! Sink or swim. Metro TV was like my second school after Sydney.”
Through long years as a field reporter putting in gruelling hours, Anita has risen to a place where she is a key member of the Indonesia Morning Show news team on the highly regarded NET TV network. She also has her own interview show, 1 Indonesia, where she talks to Indonesia’s most successful people from the arts, sport and politics, including powerful senior gures such as former President B J Habibie and current President Joko Widodo. Anita believes her access to the A-list comes from her interviewing style.
“I do ask the hard questions. I try to be the voice of the people and find clarity in the issues that they care about,” she says. “But I don’t go on the attack. The questions are part of a conversation where I’m exploring ideas.”
That said, Anita admits there have been times when her questions about corruption and other key issues in Indonesia have caused guests to “bite back” on air. Some of this biting might come from the fact that public officials still aren’t used to being held to account in Indonesia’s new era of relative press freedom.
“The political scene in Indonesia is very, very interesting because we had Reformasi – or Reform – in 1998, which led to freedom of the press,” she says. “The situation is definitely much better than in the time of the New Order.”
The New Order was the repressive and hugely corrupt regime of President Suharto. For most of Suharto’s 31-year reign (from 1967 to 1998), there was no freedom of speech and the media was heavily censored and controlled. The regime was swept from power in 1998 by an energy largely generated by Indonesia’s student population, which was hungry for democracy and freedom.
Today, the Indonesian people are still very much engaged with events in their country. Indonesians are among the world’s most active Twitter users (Anita has close to 200,000 followers), and the public has used social media to engage with the news media, affecting outcomes in recent events involving religious freedom and sexual violence against women.
This is all part of the rapidly evolving media landscape where Anita works (NET TV has only been in existence
since 2013). She’s part of a new generation of Indonesian journalists who are learning what it means to report news and address issues in a more open environment. International observers note that freedom of the press still has a long way to go in Indonesia, but Anita seems energised and confident about the future.
“There’s a lot of mess in the Indonesian media, post reformation,” she says. “But there’s beauty in the mess. It’s a great time to work there as a journalist.”
Sitting beside Anita in the café is her husband of eight years, video maker Andrew Trigg. During their visit to Australia, they’ve been shooting stories together for broadcast on NET TV; the first was shot at Lakemba Mosque.
But Andrew knew Anita long before she had a media career. “She came from such a sheltered family life,” he says. “Now she’s quite fearless. When there was a terrorist attack recently, she just jumped on her motorbike and started reporting from outside while it was still going on.”
The two are in Sydney because Anita is the 2016 winner of the prestigious Elizabeth O’Neill Journalism Award. The award is given each year by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to two high-achieving journalists: one from Indonesia and one from Australia. Part of its purpose is to give each journalist a chance to learn more about the other’s country. Hosted by DFAT, Anita is travelling around Australia for two weeks, which is giving her the chance to do what she loves most.
“The great thing about journalism, that I cherish, is that I get to talk to people from different walks of life, and I love it,” she says. “I love feeling that connection with people. You get to understand the layers of the human condition.”