Saturday, March 01, 1997

On the line

Government control over the media is absolute and unyielding - and woe betide those who overstep the mark

Andreas Harsono - Index on Censorship

"IT IS dangerous to be right," wrote Voltaire, "when the government is wrong" - to which most Indonesian journalists would probably reply that in their experience it is better to be pragmatic, even to report lies, than to tell the truth. 'If you write something the government doesn't approve of, they call up the chief editor and tell you to stick to the official press releases. We call it the "telephone culture": explains a journalist working for an Indonesian business daily.

And the threats don't only come by phone. In June last year chief editors in Jakarta were called in by a military official and encouraged to support the government's overthrow of Megawati Soekarnoputri, the eldest daughter of former President Soekarno and a popular political figure . They were also told not to use the term 'ousted' when describing the government's removal and replacement of her as chair of the PDI. Editors were also warned against using Megawati's surname because of its association with her father, and were advised instead to call her by her husband's name.

Even greater media engineering took place in the case of the new, but formally unrecognised, People's Democratic Party (PRD). A week before the Jakarta riots of 27 July, an ABRI (armed forces) official did the rounds of the editorial offices, providing information about the PRD which, he claimed, proved the organisation's Communist leanings. The official urged editors and producers to use the information. The highly damaging - and unproven - accusations duly made headlines in both the print and broadcast media, and provided the basis for official charges that the following week's disturbances were mainly orchestrated by the PRD. 

Thirty years after he gained power following the abortive coup d'etat of 1965, President Suharto has transformed this nation into a very carefully balanced political system defined by an invisible line of tolerance.

Old editorial hands say that on the forbidden side of this invisible line lie the personal lives of the Suharto family (whose business empires have grown tremendously because of their patriarch's position), East Timor, human rights violations in general and Megawati Soekarnoputri. 'When we're writing about East Timor we have to use the word "integration" instead of "invasion"; says another journalist. 'Writing the wrong word means your editor barking at you and questioning your patriotism.'

The government has also introduced a group of media taboos known collectively by the acronym SARA: "Suku' (ethnicity), 'Agama' (religion), 'Ras' (race) and 'Antar golongan' (inter-community). When dozens of churches were burned down by Muslim protesters in the towns of Situbondo and Tasikmalaya in 1996 the daily paper Kompas, which has strong Catholic connections, used the term 'houses of worship' rather than 'churches'. This is a SARA issue and the newspaper does not want to be seen to be highlighting religious tensions.

Perhaps the most important example, however, came in 1994, when several papers reported a dispute among aides to President Suharto over the procurement of 39 warships from the former East German navy. Research and technology minister B J Habibie requested US$1.1 billion to buy and to renovate the ships. His rivals, who include several military generals and finance minister Mar'ie Muhammad, refused to sanction such expenditure, and slashed the budget to US$300 million. The generals complained that they could not use the Soviet-modelled ships because their sailors are more familiar with western equipment. 'You cannot go to war with your admirals unable to read the Russian instructions; said one military analyst.

The media thought the story merited publication. It involved some big names, money, politics, manoeuvring and friction among powerful officials. It turned out to be an expensive, indeed lethal, decision. Suharto accused the media of pitting government officials against one another. Worse than that, Indonesia's number one man, himself a former military commander, ordered the closure of Tempo, DeTik and Editor news weeklies. A government official explained that "the government had been forced to revoke the publishing licences of the three magazines for the sake of the development of a free, healthy and responsible press, and for the sake of national stability."

At the time, the weeklies were the three biggest political magazines in the country. Tempo was launched in 1971 and modelled on Time magazine. When the government closed it down in June 1994, Tempo had 400 staff, sales of about 200,000 and a readership estimated at 1.4 million. The banning of the weeklies was the death knell for freedom of the press in Indonesia.

Aside from banning newspapers and arresting journalists - the most visible aspect of its repressive policies -the government has two other sophisticated weapons to bring the media into the line. The first is the state-sanctioned Association of Indonesian Journalists (PWI), which acts as the official watchdog in editorial offices. The PWI can revoke its endorsement of an editor, automatically prompting the government to ban his newspaper. 

Information minister Harmoko, the man who introduced this system, usually appoints his cronies to fill strategic positions in the PWI. Sofjan Lubis, the PWI's president, is the chief editor of the Jakarta-based daily Pas Kota, which is owned by Harmoko. Meanwhile, Tarman Azzam, the editor of its sister paper Harian Terbit, heads the PWI's Jakarta branch. Harmoko has also issued a decree making it compulsory for Indonesian journalists - whether working for domestic or foreign news organisations - to become members of the PWI.

The second weapon is the system of publishing licences, commonly known by its acronym, SIUPP. A licence can be revoked at any time, thereby enabling Harmoko (who also chairs the ruling party, Golkar), to create a system of self-censorship that generates fear among journalists. Although the 1982 Press Law specifically prohibits censorship or bans, Harmoko has issued another ministerial decree allowing the government to revoke publishing licences on editorial grounds. He insists that revocation is totally different from banning.

As the May elections draw nearer, the government is trying to tighten its grip on the media in order to gain as much control as possible of campaign coverage. The two officially recognised opposition parties, the PPP and the PDI, have repeatedly asked the state-owned television station, TVRI, to be fair when covering political parties' activities.

Harmoko, clad in his yellow Golkar uniform, appears daily on TVRI. Opposition leaders say they can accept the fact that private stations might choose to give more coverage to Golkar than to the opposition, but TVRI is not owned by Golkar - it is owned by the public.

No comments: