Research journalism and the need for dissenting sources

Anne-Lot Hoek wrote a personal reflection on becoming involved in the subject of the decolonization of Indonesia and Dutch colonialism as a research journalist. Trained as a historian she started writing for a public debate in 2012, after she watched the Dutch news broadcast NOS about the successful civil case that activist Jeffry Pondaag and lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld had filed against the Dutch state concerning its crimes in Indonesia. Hoek argues that research journalism can be useful in digging up uncomfortable historical truths and that giving voice to the unheard is essential in this process. Audio-visual sources from her fieldwork are added to illustrate this.

Featured image: Anne-Lot being interviewed on Dutch television show Nieuwsuur in 2016 about her research in Indonesia and the decision of the Dutch government to fund the research project Independence, decolonisation, violence and war in Indonesia 1945-1950. Screenshot.[efn_note]NOS Buitenland (2016), “Historicus Anne-Lot Hoek, Nieuwsuur, December 2, 2016 [Video in Dutch].[/efn_note] 


“For my current research about the Dutch occupation of Bali, I have interviewed independence fighters and their family members. Here you see respondents holding the portraits of their fathers. (Photos by Anne-Lot Hoek, Bali, 2018).”

Uncomfortable truths

In 2003 I was in a car in Namibia, during an internship with a black human rights organization. The people in the car were Jackson Mwalundangwe and Samson Ndeikwila, who had fought for a free Namibia, a country that became independent from South Africa in 1990. During the struggle that started in the 1960s they had both suffered torture and imprisonment. I had assumed they had been maltreated by the occupying South African army, but during this car ride, they told me it had been Swapo, the organization fighting against apartheid and colonization by South Africa. The same organization they had been fighting for. I was struck by this story and during my stay, I started interviewing several other survivors of Swapo camps about their experiences. Back in the Netherlands I spoke with former members of the solidarity movement. How did they deal with this uncomfortable truth? In the literature I could not find many stories on this topic. In post-colonial Namibia, but also in the Netherlands where solidarity groups had been supporting anti-apartheid organizations such as Swapo and the ANC, there was discomfort with this other story that did not fit in very well with the dominant and established narrative of a united fight on the right side of history for social justice in southern Africa.

It was research journalist Rudi Boon, writing for Groene Amsterdammer, who brought the story to the Netherlands in 1989, when several victims were released from the Swapo death camps in Angola[efn_note]Rudi Boon, “De martelkamer heette het Karl Marx ontvangstcentrum,” [The torture chamber was called the Karl Marx reception center] De Groene Amsterdammer, September 3, 1989.[/efn_note] Instantly Swapo and many of the Dutch solidarity movements accused him of serving the interests of ‘the right.’ Criticism of the ANC or Swapo was seen as identical to support for apartheid. But in ignoring the victims Dutch activists were in conflict with the notion of universal human rights, the very cause they were fighting for in the first place. It was listening to these victims, as Boon did, that turned this uncomfortable and forgotten truth into news. When I wrote my Master’s thesis on this subject[efn_note]Anne-Lot Hoek, Aan de goede zijde van de strijd: mensenrechtenschendingen van bevrijdingsbeweging Swapo en de reactie daarop van de Nederlandse solidariteitsbeweging [On the good side of the fight: human rights violations of the Swapo liberation movement and the response of the Dutch solidarity movement] (Amsterdam: Universiteit van Amsterdam, 2005).[/efn_note] under the guidance of Jan-Bart Gewald (director of the African Studies Centre in Leiden), oral history, remembering violence, formed an important part of my research.[efn_note]Anne-Lot Hoek, “Anti-apartheidsactivisten die het ANC jarenlang door dik en dun steunden, kijken terug. Hebben ze de beweging te veel geromantiseerd?,” [Anti-apartheid activists who supported the ANC for years through thick and thin look back. Have they romanticized the movement too much?] Vrij Nederland (Special Nelson Mandela 1918-2013), December 6, 2013.[/efn_note]

When I later on took part in a two-year research project at the ASC that Gewald had started on the history of a Dutch development-cooperation organization, oral history again formed a crucial part of the research. Dr. Inge Brinkman and I conducted close to three hundred interviews with staff, former staff, counterparts and people who had received Dutch aid in Africa and South America.[efn_note]Brinkman and Anne-Lot Hoek, “Bricks, Mortar and Capacity Building: A Socio-Cultural History of SNV Netherlands Development Organisation,” Afrika-Studiecentrum Series, vol. 18 (2010).[/efn_note] It was through oral history that we discovered how most of the former staff-members who had started their development careers in the 1960s were former colonials from Indonesia, and how their paternalistic ideas became deeply rooted in the development agendas. We learned that while the director of the organization made statements about working hard to meet the millennial development goal of creating local jobs, almost all drivers were to be fired due to budget cuts, people who had sometimes worked for the company for more than twenty years. These conversations gave a completely different perspective on the impact of this organization than we had gathered from the archives.


“In September 2011 I was confronted with the NOS journaal on Dutch television where I learned that Jeffry Pondaag and human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld had won the lawsuit against the Dutch state over the execution of hundreds of men in the West Javanese place Rawagede in 1947. I was struck by this unrevealed part of Dutch history that later turned out to have been revealed, but revealed and revealed again before it carefully becomes stuck onto our national memory.”[efn_note]NOS, “Het bijna vergeten bloedbad van Rawagede,” [The almost forgotten massacre of Rawagede] NOS Binnenland, September 14, 2011 [Video in Dutch, English subtitles added].[/efn_note]

Basic questions

When I began to study Dutch war crimes in Indonesia in 2012, it struck me how little emphasis was put on talking to people, asking basic questions. What I see as an advantage of having experience in journalism while doing historical research is that you start with visiting the place of the event. With the people who remember the history. With asking basic questions and trying to place them in a different perspective. With the inclusion of dissenting sources that emphasize the memory, be it oral history or poems, theatre performances, monuments or documentaries. As a journalist you are not specifically searching for an archive, you are searching for the sources that are there on the spot that enable you to tell the story.

The journalistic approach to digging up uncomfortable historical truths can therefore be beneficial for academic research because of its more radical character: closer ties to activism, a focus on revealing the untold and its natural suspicion towards those in power. Journalism can connect unheard voices, but also academic debate to a wider audience. For me personally the lines between research journalism and history writing are rather diffuse. A journalist asks what happened and how it happened, and the historian thereafter wants to know why it happened. Unlike journalists, historians are often seen as ‘objective’ analysts of the past, but in the questions asked and the sources chosen, one is already subjective. In my view accepted truths are in constant need of counter-narratives, and as a researcher you have to be able to read between the lines and get hold of dissenting and non-official sources. (see also the section co-creation, for a personal reflection on collaboration between journalists and academics for this publication)

When in September 2011 I was confronted with the NOS journaal item about Rawagede, I was struck by this unrevealed part of Dutch history that later turned out to have been revealed, but revealed and revealed again before it carefully becomes stuck onto our national memory. I experienced the same fascination as I had had in Namibia: is it not the task of researchers to give a voice to the ones unheard? To ask uncomfortable questions? Then why had colonialism been a footnote in my study curriculum? Why was the departure from Indonesia during my childhood discussed only in terms of political screw-ups? Why was there so little emphasis on the human side of the history? On the violence? The television broadcast in 2011 was my starting point for doing research and writing for a public


Anne-Lot, together with Ni Ketut Sudiani and Ni Made Frisha Aswarini interviewed around a hundred Balinese about their experiences during colonial times and the independence war. This is raw video material from one of the interviews. This former freedom fighter from Ubud explains the motivation for Balinese people to join the Indonesian independence struggle by citing his experiences during colonial time. Oppression was felt by poor people who had to perform forced labor because they were unable to pay their high taxes, and had to celebrate the Dutch Queensday at the same time by sitting on the road with the Dutch flag. In the second video (below) he explains why he became a freedom fighter and that he learned about the history of Dutch oppression by his nationalist teacher and during the time he was trained by the Japanese.[efn_note]The full recording of the interview can be found here.[/efn_note]


What was my goal? I think I wanted to convince the generation of my father, but also my own generation and the next, that we should have cared and should care for the untold stories. It was the lack of Dutch interest in Indonesian stories about colonialism and the struggle against it, that I especially felt in conversations with Indonesians, that made a deep impact on me as a person, and made me want to dig into the subject further as a researcher. A particular event that made an impression on me was my visit to the city of Rengat, Sumatra in January 2016. During the independence war, Rengat was heavily attacked in 1949, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths. In the Netherlands the story was unknown. I wrote about it for Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad[efn_note]Anne-Lot Hoek, “Ook op Sumatra richtten de Nederlanders een bloedbad aan,” [The Dutch also committed a massacre on Sumatra] NRC Handelsblad, February 13, 2016.[/efn_note] and the online magazine Inside Indonesia[efn_note]Anne-Lot Hoek, “Rengat, 1949 (Part 1),” Inside Indonesia, September 12, 2016.[/efn_note].A quote from this article: “Back in Pekanbaru, before I take the plane back to the Netherlands, Panca and I stand before the grave of his father, Wasmad Rads, who died in 2014. After the attack on Rengat, the Dutch held him captive for half a year and tortured him. ‘The Dutch come too late,’ Panca says to me, referring to my visit. His father was not embittered. But, Panca told me, he would have liked to look back at history together with Dutch people, not in anger, but just to say: ‘This is what actually happened to me.’”

This is also why I picked up the story of war veteran Charles Destrée (1926 – 2019) who had been on Bali in 1946 and who wanted to know what he had been part of and why, and how that was perceived on the other side.[efn_note]Anne-Lot Hoek, “Bloedbaden op Bali,” [Massacres in Bali] Vrij Nederland, November, 13, 2013.[/efn_note] I decided to take Bali as a case study to learn and understand more about colonial history on the island in the period of 1846-1949, and I made my first research visit in November 2014. With the help of writers/poets/researchers Ni Ketut Sudiani[efn_note]Personal profile on the website ID writers.[/efn_note] and Ni Made Frischa Aswarini[efn_note]Personal profile on the website ID writers.[/efn_note] I conducted almost a hundred interviews with Balinese over the course of several years. Prof. dr. Peter Romijn (NIOD/UvA)[efn_note]Personal profile on the website NIOD.[/efn_note] and Prof. dr. Remco Raben (UU/UvA)[efn_note]Overview of published works on Academia.[/efn_note]gave me the great opportunity to deepen the story into PhD research under their supervision. I have also joined the Dutch history project Independence, decolonisation, violence and war in Indonesia 1945-1950[efn_note]Link to the project website  Independence, decolonisation, violence and war in Indonesia 1945-1950.[/efn_note] (NIOD, NIMH and KITLV) at the KITLV that started in 2017. The project has the aim to answer questions regarding the nature, scale and causes of structural violence in Indonesia, considered in a broader political, social and international context. My contribution to the project will be to write an article based on my Bali research for the edited volume of the partial study ‘Regional Studies’ that will be published in 2021.


“I have made a radio report for the Dutch broadcaster NPO 1 Reporter about the massacre in Rengat. I attended a memorial service, and together with the relatives of the major who had been shot by the Dutch, I talked to eyewitnesses and their family members. One is Panca Prehatin, already mentioned above, the son of the war veteran Wasmad Rads who died in 2014. In the reportage (fragment 06:10.- 07:16) he speaks about the much higher number of deaths than the number that was recorded in the Dutch archives. Image: part of photo of the remembrance plate with the names of the victims of the massacre in Rengat (see full picture here).”[efn_note]NPO1, “Het bloedbad van Rengat,” [The massacre of Rengat], radio reportage by Anne-Lot Hoek and Sander Bartling, February 14, 2016, origninal at website of NPO1.[/efn_note]