Saturday, November 22, 1997

Indonesia's tireless fighter for freedom of the press

South China Morning Post
Interview

LINDA YEUNG

Ahmad Taufik's life in many ways
parallels that of recently released
Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng. Both
were thorns in the side of authority
and both were incarcerated because
they refused to be silenced. You have the
choice of
But Taufik is the luckier of the two. either being
In contrast to the 18 years Mr Wei a courageous
spent in jail for sedition, the man or a
Indonesian journalist was released in coward
July this year after having served
just 28 months of a three-year [']
sentence.

At the time of his arrest in 1995, the
Jakarta-born investigative journalist
had built a reputation for exposing
the dark side of Indonesian society.
He had a knack for exposing scandals
and questionable public policies under
the Suharto regime, such as the
government's land-clearing policy that
has resulted in the annual problem of
forest fires.

"I raised concerns about the
environmental impact [of the
land-clearing] before the recent heavy
smog that has affected neighbouring
regions," he said.

His boldness finally took its toll
when he penned an article in 1995 for
the local Independent magazine,
exposing a deplorable case of conflict
of interest. It revealed the stakes
held in several domestic news
organisations by Mr Harmoko, the then
Minister of Information.

As a result, Taufik was accused of
having "sown the seeds of hatred
against the government".

But it was obvious to him why he had
become a target of hatred. During his
period of detention prior to the
sentencing, he was shown a letter that
Mr Harmoko had written to the military
to express his indignation at Taufik's
magazine piece.

A man of high spirits who can now
laugh at his own misfortune, Taufik,
32, said during a stopover visit to
Hong Kong last weekend: "You have the
choice of either being a courageous
man or a coward."

Putting on a defiant face, he says he
rarely worries about his safety
nowadays. "I could have been beaten or
killed in prison," he said. "Some
prison officers had warned me of the
possibility, but I was friends with
criminals in the same jail. So it
would have required a huge amount of
money to get a criminal to kill me."

Taufik, who developed a slight knee
problem in jail, stopped in Hong Kong
on his way to Vancouver to belatedly
receive the 1995 International Press
Freedom Award of the New York-based
Committee to Protect Journalists. He
shared his experience at a talk
organised by the Freedom Forum for
local and foreign journalists.

"There are many organisations outside
Indonesia who respect what we do," he
said.

"I'd be happier if people in Indonesia
respected us too. A lot of the people
are afraid to show their support due
to pressure from the paramilitary
regime."

Taufik's integrity is admirable. While
in prison he continued writing,
secretly filing to Indonesian
publication reports on corruption
within the police and the judiciary.
He also condemned the abuse of power
by prison officers.

His interpreter, Andreas Harsono, a
friend and the Jakarta correspondent
for the Bangkok-based Nation
newspaper, chipped in: "He was moved
from one prison to another, from one
remote place to another more remote
place, because of his tendency to
write in his cell." But the punishment
did not have the desired effect.

While in the same prison as Xanana
Gusamo, the resistance leader from
East Timor now serving a 20-year jail
term for leading the outlawed East
Timorese pro-independence movement, he
interviewed the rebel in secret while
they were performing gardening chores
together.

Prior to his release, he wrote to
Charles Goddard, a local
representative of the Hong Kong
Journalists' Association, inquiring
about the prospects for press freedom
in post-handover Hong Kong. But he
suspects the letter never left the
jail, because he did not receive a
reply.

He raised the same question during his
brief visit here. "I hope Hong Kong
can set an example of democracy for
other parts of China," he said.

Taufik now specialises in crime
reporting for the Jakarta-based D&R
news weekly, challenging the
authorities, for example, by revealing
the military's links with the
underworld. It does not bother him
that his work and that of his
colleagues is often subject to
censorship. Neither has the presence
of potential risks dampened his
enthusiasm.

His zeal is shared by a group of
fellow journalists back home. In
August 1994, two months after three
weeklies, Tempo, Detik and Editor,
were officially banned by the
Government, they came together to form
the Alliance of Independent
Journalists, a body that seeks to
promote press freedom in the country.
Taufik was its first president.

He realises an uphill battle lies
ahead in their fight for a freer
environment, but said: "We'll do
whatever we can; we'll test the limits
of tolerance of the current regime."

Despite his commitment, Taufik, who is
married with a son, said: "I never put
myself under stress. That's why I
managed to persist in my career. In
jail too, I even gained weight."

The personal satisfaction he derives
from his work is another incentive for
him to remain in the field. "I really
enjoy my work," he grinned. "It allows
me to have access to different
information, and disclose to people
information that they are not aware
of. It's like a priest giving sermons.

"I feel free when I am writing. We are
oppressed people and what we can do is
to keep voicing our views."

Also a staunch fighter for democracy
under a totalitarian regime, he is
unlike the internationally known Mr
Wei in that he is able to continue his
activities in his home country.

"I am really sorry that Mr Wei has to
go abroad. He should remain in his own
country and fight with his own people.
But I do hope other dissidents will be
released after Mr Wei."

Showing a certain degree of optimism
for future changes in China, he said:
"Unlike Suharto, Jiang Zemin has just
risen to power. I hope he'll support
democracy and not repeat the mistakes
of the past Chinese leaders."

No comments: