Thursday, August 15, 1996

Government Repression: Cracks in the Wall

Journalists In Peril


by Vikram A. Parekh

Can a nation that has tasted freedom of the press be forced back into censorship and the imprisonment of independent journalists? Indonesia may well offer an answer.

Since winning independence from the Dutch in 1949, the vast and populous southeast Asian nation has been dominated by two successive rulers: Sukarno, a charismatic, if at times autocratic, nationalist of leftist leanings who led the independence struggle, and Suharto, a dictatorial general. Suharto took power in 1967 after the suppression of a 1965 coup attempt that triggered the brutal persecution--which took hundreds of thousands of lives--of the legally constituted Indonesian Communist Party. President Suharto's regime has been characterized by authoritarian rule, an adherence to free-market economics that has fostered a substantial middle class and a brief interlude of relative press freedom.

Six years ago, Suharto announced a new policy of keterbukaan, or openness, in response to mounting pressure from local nongovernmental organizations, international human rights groups and foreign governments. It also served to defuse a growing rift between Suharto and Indonesia's powerful army, which had expressed dissatisfaction with his authoritarianism.

Local journalists seized the opportunity and injected critical and investigative voices into the country's previously staid media. New publications appeared, including the weekly tabloids Editor and DeTik, which pushed the margins of independent journalism.

DeTik offered perhaps the most dramatic testimony to the political sophistication of Indonesian readers. Introduced in February 1993, its courageous style of reportingpreviously encountered only in underground journalsboosted circulation in the space of a year from 7,000 to more than 450,000 copies. DeTik was brave, intelligent and profitable.

The weeklies printed dissenting commentary, covered political scandalsincluding a controversial warship purchaseand reported on labor and ethnic unrest. They depicted a country racked by cronyism, corruption and civil disturbancethe very traits likely to scare away investors in the country's fast-growing economy. By reporting on separatist movements in Aceh and East Timor, they belied the regime's pretense of control over the archipelago's far-flung islands.

Appearing when many were beginning to question the country's prospects after the demise of the 75-year-old Suharto, DeTik and its contemporaries rattled the government. In June 1994, DeTik, along with Editor and Tempo-- the country's largest-circulation glossy newsmagazine and the pioneer of independent journalism in the mainstream press -- was banned by the Information Ministry.

Indonesian newsstands now feature two publications intended by the Suharto regime to serve as replacements: Gatra, a glossy pro-government newsmagazine owned by Suharto crony Muhammad "Bob" Hassan, and the similarly acquiescent tabloid Tiras, owned by Minister of Manpower Abdul Latief. Other publications that once tested the limits of keterbukaan have dramatically curtailed the extent of their investigative reporting.

The reaction to the press bans revealed that keterbukaan had changed Indonesians' expectations of the media. In the weeks that followed the banning, cities throughout Indonesia witnessed demonstrations by journalists, activists and most importantly, ordinary readers. The demonstrations reflected in part the emergence of a new generation of reporters and editorsjournalists accustomed to reporting with restraints that were more akin to leashes than straitjackets.

The depth of popular support for the weeklies caught many journalists by surprise. In an essay about the banning, Indonesian free-lancer and activist Rachland Nashidik pointed to a broader discontent that underlay the demonstrations:

We will not certainly forget the time Tempo revealed the mass killing in Jakarta's Tanjung Priok, the mysterious murder of [labor activist] Marsinah, the arrest and imprisonment of Nuku Soleiman and the 21 students who dared to criticise the president. . . . people are angry, they do not want to live under the dominance of a regime which does everything without any shame to keep its hold on its own tyrannical power.

The public protests subsided after brutal assaults by Indonesian police and military forces, but Indonesian journalists' efforts to defend their rights continued. Many who had worked for the banned publications, or who had taken part in the demonstrations against their closure, were incensed by the reaction of the state-sponsored Indonesian Journalists' Association (PWI), which issued a statement saying it "understood" the reasons for the bans.

After meeting in the West Java town of Sirnagalih in August 1994, over 50 journalists announced the formation of the country's only independent press union: the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI).

Since its inception, AJI has dramatically challenged the regime's press curbs. Among AJI's first actions was to publish a book of essays by prominent Indonesian journalists on the impact of the June 1994 press bans. To reach both international and Indonesian audiences, the book was published in English and Bahasa Indonesia, the country's national language. Next, AJI began an even more daring venture: the publication of a newsmagazine that would fill the void in investigative reporting left by Tempo, DeTik, and Editor.

Entitled Independen, the monthly magazine debuted in the fall of 1994 and quickly drew an audience well beyond its circulation of about 10,000 copies. Its articles covered topics such as the personal wealth of government ministers, the successor to Suharto and nepotism in Suharto's inner circle.

But Independen did not have a publishing license and stood no chance of getting one. Under Indonesian law only press corporations may publish, and those corporations must secure publishing licenses from the Information Ministry.

Under the licensing process, the Information Ministry has the authority to approve the mandate and editorship of each publication. These provisions give the Ministry wide latitude to deny and revoke licenses. Of the three banned weeklies, for example, two officially lost their licenses for technical infractions: DeTik for deviating from its stated mission of publishing crime reports and Editor for failing to inform the Ministry of personnel changes in its editorial board.

There was a more insidious consequence of the licensing regime, according to an article in Independen: by abusing his authority to grant permits, Information Minister Harmoko had amassed substantial shares in the country's largest press corporations. AJI members believe that it was this report, more than any other, that prompted authorities to increase pressure on Independen.

In March 1995, police raided an AJI function and arrested its president, Ahmad Taufik, as well as several other union members. They also detained Danang Kukuh Wardoyo, AJI's 19-year-old office assistant. Later that evening, about 20 police officers raided AJI's office, arrested AJI member Eko Maryadi and seized the group's computers, fax machine and files.

A three-month trial began in June 1995. Taufik and Maryadi were charged with violating Article 19 of the press law, which prohibits the publication of an unlicensed newspaper or magazine, and Article 154 of the criminal code, which bars the expression of "feelings of hostility, hatred or contempt toward the government."

The case attracted massive attention in Indonesia, neighboring countries such as Australia and the international human rights community. The British freedom of expression group Article 19 sent an observer to the trial, while the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) conferred one of its prestigious annual press freedom awards on Taufik. The most remarkable demonstration of support came from Indonesians themselves, who packed the courtroom for each session and openly denounced the verdict: 32 months in prison each. Wardoyo received a jail term of 18 months for his role in distributing Independen.

International opprobrium and domestic outrage followed, but the Suharto regime proved impervious to bothan indication that it was determined to maintain control over the media at all costs. The 32-month prison terms handed down to Taufik and Maryadi were actually extended on appeal to three years in prison each. And last March, the Indonesian Supreme Court upheld that decision, limiting the two journalists' options within the judicial system to a review by the same court.

Taufik and Maryadi still continued to write, sending letters to three publications about conditions in Cipinang prison and interviewing a fellow prisoner, East Timorese leader Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, for Independen.

On Aug. 16, authorities responded by transferring them to a remote facility in Cirebon, 200 kilometers east of Jakarta.

But Taufik and Maryadi have not been the only members of AJI to bear the fallout of the government's crackdown on the union. By law, all working journalists in Indonesia must be members of the state-sponsored PWI. Although the requirement was often disregarded in the past, in the wake of AJI's formation authorities announced that it would henceforth be strictly enforced. In effect, journalists involved with AJI were blacklisted.

When DeTik's publishers tried to revive the tabloid under the name Simponi, in October 1994, they were forced to close after one issue because their staff included non-PWI members. Simultaneous membership in the two press unions became impossible after March 1995, when PWI expelled 13 of its members for having signed the Sirnagalih Declaration establishing AJI. Among them were Goenawan Mohamad, the internationally respected editor and publisher of Tempo, and Eros Djarot, the editor who had spearheaded DeTik's move into investigative journalism.

Through direct pressure on editors and publishers, over 80 AJI members have been forced out of their jobs, while others have been demoted or shunted to dead-end assignments. AJI spokesperson Andreas Harsono, for example, was fired from his job at the Jakarta Post in October 1994 because he was deemed "unsuitable."

Harsono's dismissal came just two weeks after a PWI-sponsored meeting at which Jakarta Post editor Santoso Pudjomartono reportedly pledged to take firm measures against AJI members on his staff.

Despite the repression, AJI members and many other Indonesian journalists continue to circumvent official media constraints. Tempo magazine, which last May lost a court battle to have its publishing license restored, is available in an Internet edition. However, its reach is limited to Indonesia's intelligentsia and falls far short of the print edition's circulation of 190,000.

Several former Tempo journalists have established a firm that produces the Sunday edition of the newspaper Media Indonesia on contract. In the year since its debut, the Sunday paper has earned a reputation among Indonesian readers as one of the most editorially independent publications among the licensed media.

Media Indonesia, however, has had its own brushes with the authorities. Last September, its directors suspended publication of the Sunday edition for four weeks. The announcement came shortly after the Sunday paper ran an interview with Islamic scholar Nurcholish Madjid, in which he criticized the country's political system and called for the creation of new opposition parties. Although the Information Ministry denied involvement in the decision to suspend the publication, few in the Indonesian press community saw it as anything other than a reaction to official pressure.

The same month saw other Indonesian media sustain casualties for airing the views of well-known political dissidents. A popular weekly television show, "Perspektif," was canceled five days after it broadcast a segment that featured the veteran independent journalist Mochtar Lubis as a guest. And the Sumatra-based newspaper Lampung Post suspended four of its reporters after receiving an official complaint about an interview with Indonesia's most celebrated novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who lives under house arrest.

The depth of discontent with the present order in Indonesia was revealed very recently. In July 1996, Jakarta was engulfed by riots set off by the army's seizure of Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) headquarters from loyalists of the party's ousted leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno's daughter, who had advocated a freer political system for Indonesia.

Outraged citizens took to the streets. Demonstrations, which drew upwards of 50,000 protestors, spun wildly out of control. Office buildings and small businesses alike were set ablaze. The riots were quelled as the army deployed tanks and troops throughout Jakarta, a move that presaged the sweeping arrests of students, labor activists and opposition figures. However misplaced the rioters' targets may at times have been, their rage indicated both the depth of discontent with the prevailing autocracy and the deafening lack of outlets for freedom of expression.

The prospects for press freedom in Indonesia are still uncertain. But Indonesian journalists who attempt to navigate these tortuous straits are armed with a legacy of independent journalism and a readership that is prepared to demand it. However limited the floodgate that Suharto opened six years ago, the fact remains that Indonesia's media and the reading public were transformed. Now the movement is theirs, and the setbacks that Suharto imposes can in the end be only temporary.

Vikram A. Parekh is the program coordinator for Asia for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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