Exposing Indonesia’s Coal Oligarchs

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Indonesia

Publishing organisation: [Project Multatuli](https://projectmultatuli.org/)

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-02-04

Language: English, Indonesian

Authors: Writer and reporter: Viriya Singgih

Researchers: Viriya Singgih, Mawa Kresna

Graphic designers: Muhammad Nauval Firdaus, Louis Lugas

Game developer: Louis Lugas

Editors: Fahri Salam, Mawa Kresna, Evi Mariani, Sam Schramski

Translators: Viriya Singgih, Sebastian Partogi


Viriya Singgih has been a Project Multatuli journalist since May 2021. He is a former reporter at Bloomberg News and The Jakarta Post, where he covered various reporting beats, including energy and mining, macroeconomics, and politics from 2016 to 2019. He wrote a book entitled “Cramming Jakarta: The Center and Periphery in Collection of Reportage” (2015). He received a Chevening scholarship in 2022 to pursue an M.A. in interactive journalism at City, University of London.

Project description:

I, along with several Project Multatuli team members, created an interactive data story to help the public peel back the many layers of the coal oligarchy—the small group of men who control the dirty energy source—in Indonesia.

The story was presented in the form of a game, in which players must answer questions about the businesses and networks of the nation’s 10 biggest coal oligarchs. At the end of the game, we provided a link to an in-depth 11,000-word story on the 10 oligarchs, who had been able to perpetuate their dirty energy enterprises for decades.

Impact reached:

Not long after the game and in-depth report on Indonesia’s 10 biggest coal oligarchs were published by Project Multatuli in early February 2022, they went viral on social media, particularly on Twitter. As a result, both products were able to reach a wide range of people from different backgrounds.

As of March 22, 2022, the Twitter threads on the game and story had gained more than 444,000 impressions, leading to over 15,100 people visiting the game pages (both the Indonesian and English versions) and 72,200 people reading the in-depth 11,000-word stories (both the Indonesian and English versions) on Project Multatuli’s website.

Many people shared the screenshots of them while playing the game. People also shared the links to and praised the game and article, including noted Indonesian economist Faisal Basri, Murdoch University’s senior lecturer Ian Wilson, and Straits Times correspondent Jeffrey Hutton. Louise White, a graduate student at Stanford University Graduate School of Business in the US, even interviewed me in November 2022 to better understand the process of creating the game and story as well as Indonesia’s dirty fuel industry as part of her research.

About three weeks after the game and article were published, Koalisi Bersihkan Indonesia (Clean Indonesia Coalition) created a new social media campaign on Indonesia’s coal oligarchs using similar data from Project Multatuli’s game and story. The coalition consists of various NGOs, including the environmental ones such as Walhi, Jatam, and Greenpeace Indonesia.

Project Multatuli’s game and story have subsequently triggered discussions, further research, and more environmental campaigns against Indonesia’s coal oligarchy and dirty fuel industry. Amid mounting pressure, Indonesia’s state-owned lender Bank Rakyat Indonesia (BRI) then announced in May 2022 that it would stop providing new funding for coal and oil and gas projects.

Techniques/technologies used:

I spent two months, from December 2021 to January 2022, manually collecting and organizing publicly available data and information from Indonesia’s Energy and Mining Ministry’s website, annual reports of the nation’s biggest coal mining companies, research and studies by different organizations, past articles published by dozens of Indonesian and international news outlets, and video documentaries to map out the biggest coal-mining companies and their respective owners, as well as the owners’ other businesses, overall capital strengths, as well as political networks and influence.

After consulting with Project Multatuli’s managing editor Mawa Kresna and data journalist Louis Lugas, I decided to create a news game, through which I could present the story in a fun and interesting way. Lugas then helped develop the game using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and D3.js, Kresna prepared the game questions based on my research findings and infographics to be used in the in-depth story, and graphic designer Nauval Firdaus worked on the illustrations of the coal oligarchs. In the end, we were able to publish the Indonesian and English versions of the game and story in early February 2022.

Context about the project:

Indonesia’s energy and mining sector is full of broken promises and lip services. The country has set many ambitious goals in the past nine years during President Joko Widodo era to boost the use of renewable energy, yet there has been no significant progress on the ground.

Indonesia ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2016. In July 2021, the country also submitted its updated climate commitments to the UN and set a deadline to eliminate completely its greenhouse gas emissions by 2060 or before. However, looking at Indonesia’s track record and even the long-term plan to achieve net-zero carbon emissions, it’s clear that Indonesia still puts a premium on coal and lacks the political will to boost the use of renewable energy. At the end of the day, Indonesia always goes back to coal.

There are several challenges in reporting on energy and mining in Indonesia. This subject is dry, full of technical terms, and relatively hard to comprehend, especially for common people. That’s why, discussions on this matter often just occur among limited groups of people, including researchers, activists, and certain government and political figures, not among the grassroots.

In Indonesia, covering energy also means covering the mafias and conglomerates who try to ensure that the dirty fuel businesses can keep going. So, often times, journalists in remote regions must face threats after publishing stories related to these conglomerates. Even on social media, after I published the coal-oligarchs game, buzzers flocked into my and Project Multatuli’s accounts and tried to question the credibility of my report. It must be noted that this country has a draconian law, namely the Electronic Information and Transactions Law, which has often been used to prosecute journalists for defamation.

Moreover, data and information on Indonesia’s energy and mining sector are relatively hard to collect, including because of the coal miners’ complicated business structure or lack of transparency. It’s also hard to rely on the Indonesian government websites due to their disorderly nature. Many government sites, which are not user-friendly or not designed with non-experts in mind, offer few interactive features, preventing users from filtering and extracting data with ease.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

This project shows that journalists can allure many people to delve into this complex energy and mining issue by using data journalism techniques and being creative in the presentation of the stories. Hence, it’s important for news organizations to invest in data journalism, whether in terms of the required tools or human resources. By doing so, the press would be able to use data to tell impactful stories on various different platforms, help the people gain a better understanding of the complicated realities they are living in, and hold those in power accountable.

Project links: