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Indonesian investigative reporter and journalism advocate Tommy Apriando, 1989-2020

  • Tommy Apriando, an esteemed investigative journalist and chairperson of the Yogyakarta branch of Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), died Sunday at the age of 30 after being hospitalized for complications from diabetes.
  • In a country where environmental reporting is potentially deadly, Apriando wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. He took on politicians who used their connections with oligarchs to enrich themselves, exposed abuses by mining and palm oil companies, and told the complex stories that underpin entrenched land conflicts.
  • Apriando won deep respect from his peers for his courageous reporting, which regularly appeared on Mongabay, China Dialogue, The Pangolin Reports, and The Wire. In 2019, he was elected to lead AJI in Yogyakarta, where he was an outspoken advocate for press freedom and the welfare of other journalists.
  • Apriando is survived by his wife, Wiwid Ervita, his mother, Jamsiah, and his younger sister, Dwi Unzirzam.
Tommy Apriando from @tommyapriando on Instagram.

Reporting on environmental issues is not easy. It can mean great physical exertion under difficult conditions, painstakingly long investigative processes involving mountains of paperwork, stonewalling — or worse — from officials and companies, and navigating the devastating grief of survivors of tragic events, all while earning a pittance relative to those who run the companies that despoil the environment.

Tommy Apriando, an esteemed investigative journalist and chairperson of the Yogyakarta branch of Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) who died Sunday at the age of 30, pursued this type of reporting like few others, earning accolades from human rights advocates, environmental activists, and fellow journalists.

In a country where environmental reporting is potentially deadly, Apriando wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. He took on politicians who used their connections with oligarchs to enrich themselves, exposed abuses by mining and palm oil companies, and told the complex stories that underpin entrenched land conflicts. While his love of nature revealed itself in his reporting of environmental issues, he often put people at the center of his stories, using their experiences as a vehicle for illustrating why we should care. For example, when Apriando told the story of coal mining’s impacts in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province, he focused on the tragic deaths of children who lost their lives in the murky waters of abandoned mine tailing ponds.

Tommy Apriando from @tommyapriando on Instagram.
Tommy Apriando from @tommyapriando on Instagram.
Tommy Apriando from @tommyapriando on Instagram.

Tommy Apriando was born on April 10, 1989, in Lampung, southern Sumatra, graduating from Universitas Islam Indonesia in Yogyakarta with a degree in law in 2012. He was a reporter with his campus student magazine, Keadilan (Justice). It was a period when he began to love journalism and become engaged with human rights and environmental issues. He wrote his thesis about controversial military tribunals in Indonesia’s West Papua and Papua provinces.

Upon graduation, he took a short journalism course in Jakarta and Melbourne, and later joined Mongabay, where he undertook impressive investigative reporting on environmental issues, from cement mining on Mount Kendeng in Java to the killing of a farmer in Lumajang, eastern Java, over sand mining operations there.

Apriando’s father died shortly after he finished school in Yogyakarta, so he regularly returned home to his village in Lampung to help his mother manage their family’s farm, planting stinky beans and black peppers. He was a proud farmer — working the soil reinvigorated his connection to the natural world. But inevitably his journalism would call him back to Yogyakarta, where he often hosted discussions between visiting activists, farmers and environmentalists.

Tommy Apriando from @tommyapriando on Instagram.
Tommy Apriando from @tommyapriando on Instagram.
Tommy Apriando from @tommyapriando on Instagram.

Apriando won deep respect from his peers for his courageous reporting, which regularly appeared at Mongabay, China Dialogue, The Pangolin Reports, and The Wire. In 2019, he was elected to lead AJI in Yogyakarta, where he was an outspoken advocate for press freedom and the welfare of other journalists.

When Mongabay editor Philip Jacobson was arrested on Jan. 21, 2020, for an alleged visa violation, Apriando — despite being hospitalized for complications from diabetes — catalyzed public statements from Indonesian organizations on Jacobson’s behalf. Jacobson’s charges were dismissed on Jan. 31, the same day that Apriando fell into a coma. Apriando died early in the morning of Feb. 2, and was buried in his village in Lampung on Feb. 3.

Apriando leaves behind a substantial legacy for someone so young. His investigative exposés forced top Indonesian officials to reckon with abuses in the mining sector, while his reporting on a range of other topics informed hundreds of thousands of people on critical issues facing everyday Indonesians. Apriando also contributed to the documentary film Sexy Killers, which revealed the mining oligarchy behind the presidential candidates in Indonesia’s most recent election.

Tommy Apriando from @tommyapriando on Instagram.
Tommy Apriando from @tommyapriando on Instagram.
Tommy Apriando from @tommyapriando on Instagram.
Tommy Apriando from @tommyapriando on Instagram.

Andreas Harsono, a founder of Pantau Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to elevate the standard of Indonesian journalism, said Apriando was a dedicated and diligent reporter, whose early death is Indonesia’s loss.

“Tommy’s passion and determination are amazing. He often came to our apartment, chatting about his travel and reporting. I often asked him, ‘Are you not tired?’ Tommy usually responds with a big laugh,” Harsono said.

“His death is a really sad loss for environmental journalism in Indonesia.”

Apriando is survived by his wife, Wiwid Ervita, his mother, Jamsiah, and his younger sister, Dwi Unzirzam.

Donations to his family can be made via GoFundMe.

GoFundMe campaign for Apriando’s family
Tommy Apriando, his wife, Wiwid Ervita, and his mother, Jamsiah from @tommyapriando on Instagram.
Tommy Apriando from @tommyapriando on Instagram.