On August 21 2009 an offshore oil well in the Timor Sea blew up. This caused at least 40 millions litres of crude oil to spill into the ocean between Indonesia and Australia. The leak from the Montara wellhead platform damaged the environment and the health and livelihoods of fishers and seaweed farmers of West Timor, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Nine years after the disaster, the coastal community affected by the oil spill has yet to be compensated.
The oil spill is considered one of Australia’s worst oil disasters. Despite this, the mitigation response did not receive the levels of publicity of other offshore oil disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
I study media and governmental responses to environmental threats affecting coastal communities on the eastern rim of the Indian Ocean. My student (who is co-author of this piece) and I examined online articles between 2006 and 2017 by The West Australian, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review and Indonesian news outlets Pos Kupang, Kompas and Bisnis Indonesia. We found significant gaps in coverage of the unfolding disaster and subsequent legal action.
The media we surveyed represented regional, national and business newspapers from Australia and Indonesia. We chose media that were not owned by the state but nonetheless shaped the knowledge of the communities they addressed.
We found that coverage of the Montara oil spill, the mitigation response and subsequent lawsuits has been sporadic, inconsistent and relatively insubstantial.
At the time of Montara oil spill, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) sprayed 184,000 litres of chemicals to break down the oil into smaller droplets so it could mix with water faster and be less visible. But these dispersants are known to increase the toxicity of the oil for some marine organisms.
The use of toxic dispersant by an Australian government agency potentially played a part in worsening victims’ suffering. But the Australian media we surveyed wrote little about it.
The West Australian, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review stopped reporting on the safety and effectiveness of the dispersants following their early reports on the oil spill in August and September 2009. This was despite the issue being raised in the Australian Parliament.
They also did not pay much attention to the class-action lawsuit launched by Indonesian seaweed farmers against the Thai-owned oil company PTTEP, which owned the platform. More than 15,000 seaweed farmers from East Nusa Tenggara launched the lawsuit, asking for potentially more than A$200 million.
In contrast, a study of media coverage of the Deepwater Horizon spill found this coverage was big enough to have affected Barack Obama’s image as president.
The impact of poor media coverage
The impact of the lack of proper coverage of the Montara oil spill is significant.
The Australian public has been left in the dark about the role Australian government agencies played in the Montara disaster. According to a report by the Montara Commission of Inquiry, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority (NOPSA) – now National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) – and the Northern Territory’s Resources Department failed in their regulatory duties to prevent a major accident from happening.
The public also lacked understanding of how poorly AMSA handled the spill. The AMSA sprayed poisonous dispersants without proper assessment and planning. The three Australian media early in the spill praised AMSA for its quick actions, but did not mention the harmful effect of dispersants on people in Indonesia.
Because Australian media did not provide sufficient coverage, the Australian public have little knowledge of how the coastal communities in West Timor lost their livelihoods. Due to the oil spill, the farmers can no longer plant or harvest seaweeds.
The spill has also affected the health of communities. According to a report by the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA), the local people suffered from rashes, pus-filled cysts and inexplicable bruising following exposure to the ocean. The report also mentioned food poisoning in the spill’s aftermath.
The lack of substantive coverage has enabled the Australian government to blame the entire disaster on PTTEP, through the narratives presented to and reported by the Australian media that we studied.
The absence of media coverage of environmental disasters that involve multiple countries raises the need for media collaboration between countries.
The lack of coverage of the Montara oil disaster has indicated a lack of connection between locally based sources and overseas media. The problem comes from the limited ability of sources to reach and gain the trust of journalists from foreign media.
We can see this in the way Australian and Indonesian media choose and quote their sources. Indonesian articles would feature a spokesperson from a local NGO or an Indonesian government official. Australian media featured Australia’s resources and environment ministers, the oil company spokesperson and Australian politicians.
Most sources in Montara oil spill reports were found in press conferences or releases. This approach was found in both Australian and Indonesian news organisations. There has been no Indonesian media reporting of the charges against PTTEP in the Northern Territory court.
In the event of an environmental disaster involving multiple countries what can people do to make sure that people overseas understand the conditions they face?
First, people can try to reach out to journalists and ensure their statements are made digitally available to news organisations. They should also consider engaging locally based allied organisations or public relations professionals, or investing in a temporary physical presence near the targeted news organisations.
While their claims might still not meet media organisations’ standards and ethical requirements, it is important to make journalists aware of relevant situations in other countries.
Once their statements reach an overseas public, the latter will have a better understanding of the conditions facing the affected communities. This knowledge will enable the public to demand better environmental emergency responses and safer industrial practices from their governments and corporate sectors.