Despite the fall of Suharto, Indonesian journalists still have to look around before going ahead with their stories, writes Andreas Harsono.
RELEASED from the shackles of former President Suharto's dictatorship, Indonesian journalists still have to carefully count on many powerful organisations and influential figures before going to press with their stories on gruesome human rights abuses.
''Suharto is gone but Abri is still here to stay,'' said Ati Nurbaiti (on Monday), a reporter of the English-language Jakarta Post daily, referring to the local acronym of the Indonesian Armed Forces which has won notoriety because of its human rights record.
According to Nurbaiti, Indonesian newspapers usually consider a number of factors before publishing sensitive human rights reports or corruption scandals. The military is one factor. The government of newly-appointed President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie is another one.
Although the Habibie government is relatively weaker than the Suharto regime, but it is still closely related. Critics say Habibie only continues the Suharto regime despite Habibie's repeated attempt to distance himself from the Indonesian strongman.
Last but not least, journalists have also to consider the Muslims in Indonesia which has the largest Muslim population in a single country in the world. Many of them are quite intolerant toward the media.
A right-wing Muslim organisation just recently filed a lawsuit against the ''Jakarta-Jakarta'' monthly men's magazine over its report on a massive anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta in May.
The Muslim group alleges that the magazine had tarnished the good name of Islam after quoting an Internet report on a rape victim. The victim reportedly quoted her rapist as saying, ''You must be raped because you're Chinese and non-Muslim,'' implicating that the rapist is a Muslim and a pribumi which literally translates as ''indigenous''.
The Muslim group argues correctly that the Internet report is baseless on the grounds that the victim is never known and that her account is only distributed on the Internet.
''Reporting human rights violence is a tricky issue,'' said Nurbaiti.
''Women issue is indeed considered to be an acceptable issue. But not gang rape in a military-operation area such as in Aceh.''
Aceh was considered to a no-journalist zone during the Suharto era. But Suharto's fall in May has drastically encouraged many Aceh figures, human rights workers as well as the media to expose massive killing that took place in the area since it was declared a military-operation area in 1989.
Just like in the internationally-disputed East Timor, Aceh in northern Sumatra as well as Irian Jaya in the Pacific, have witnessed many torture, mass rapes and even massacres conducted by the Indonesian army.
Budiman Tanuredjo, a legal correspondent of the Jakarta-based Kompas daily, Indonesia's biggest serious newspaper, also noted (on Monday) difficulties when reporting human rights abuses, saying that some of his colleagues had recently received threats through their beepers, handphones or even being tailed by intelligent people.
''When the Dili massacre took place in November 1991, we had to do our best to write our reports. Now it is easier to report the Aceh case,'' said Budiman, adding that he had received various kind of warning after publishing an interview with then outspoken East Timor Governor Mario Carrascalao over the mass killing in the East Timor capital.
''There's still Abri generals who are hostile against the media. But they're less powerful,'' said the 34-year-old correspondent who had covered legal and human rights issue since 1991.
Indeed, just like both Nurbaiti and Budiman agreed, the Habibie era has slightly created a relatively press freedom here. The Suharto period was marred by the closure of more than 30 news organisations which include Indonesia's most established weekly magazine Tempo in 1994.
According to Habibie's Information Minister Muhammad Yunus, he had already approved the publications of more than 120 news magazines, tabloids and dailies since the fall of Suharto.
''I practically signed one new licence everyday,'' Yunus says in August, adding that he is to pass a new media law to the parliament which is to free publishers from having a publishing licence.
In Ujungpandang, a major port city in southern Sulawesi in the eastern part of Indonesia, eight new weeklies suddenly appear in the market. Two new dailies are soon going to compete against the three existing dailies. These media have to compete one to each other to publish more exclusive reports.
The Jakarta-based bi-weekly 'Tajuk' even claims to be an entertainment, business and investigative magazine, focusing its reports on poll-based and in-depth reporting.
Budiman, however, noted that his newspaper is always trying to publish a story ''proportionately'' no matter how conservative such a stance to be compared with other ''more daring and outspoken media''.
Goenawan Mohamad, the chief editor of the Tempo news weekly, stresses the need to ''institutionalise'' the relatively press freedom enjoyed by the media, saying that media advocates, journalists and editors should work hard to change the Suharto-inherited draconian media laws.
Goenawan believes that no such a free lunch. It is better to have freedom, although a little bit chaotic, rather than being censored and ''guided'' by the government just like what had happened over the last 30 years in Suharto's Indonesia.
Despite many difficulties, foreign diplomats and media observers here are quite usual to build the expertise to read between the lines. Leading newspapers such as Kompas, The Jakarta Post and Tempo have a long reputation of always trying to expand the limit of media openness.
According to Tanuredjo, his method when interviewing his sources is always being a ''moderate reporter, not bending to the left, nor to the right''. When facing activists, Tanuredjo tends to place himself as if he is a bureaucrat, raising questions toward the activists like what the bureaucrats used to do. On the contrary, if he is to question bureaucrats, he tend to think like the activists, raising arguments or questions like the activists.
''In short I cannot just easily swallow their data or arguments,'' says Budiman.
Perhaps, tired of being harassed and having the euphoria of the post-Suharto period, might also encourage reporters to be more aggressive. A group of angry reporters and photographers beat up an intelligence officer in early September for blocking and pulling the collars of some of the journalists when they were trying to doorstep timber tycoon Mohamad Hasan.
The army sergeant even took out his FN .45 pistol to discourage the journalists from covering Hasan's six-hour questioning at the Attorney General's office in Jakarta in connection with widespread allegations of corruption.
When a group of photographers tried to take the picture of Hasan, who is also a close associate to Suharto, Sgt Ramli got in their way and pulled at the collars of the pushy reporters after Hasan proved to be reluctant to answer their questions.
''He was disturbing our job. Imagine, he grabbed my collar and tried to pull me away. That was why I kicked him away,'' says Kompas journalist Arbain Rambey, adding that the journalists then shouted, ''thief, thief'' before chasing and beating the officer.
-- Andreas Harsono is The Nation's Jakarta correspondent.