Wednesday, January 20, 1999

Post-Suharto media's new struggles

Having won the battle against government censorship, Indonesian journalists are now seeking to inject democracy into media organisations, writes Andreas Harsono. 

JAKARTA -- Two weeks after Indonesian strongman Suharto stepped down, Indonesian editor, poet and political activist Goenawan Mohamad gathered his lieutenants for a meeting in a villa in scenic Puncak. 

Goenawan brought with him just a one-item agenda: how should journalists react to the huge political changes in Indonesia? Most of the journalists who attended the Puncak meeting are members of the Jakarta-based Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information, a low-profile think-tank whose main objective is to campaign for media freedom. 

The group was established in January 1995, a few months after Suharto closed down Indonesia's oldest weekly news magazine, Tempo, whose editor-in-chief was Goenawan. 

Suharto's successor, B J Habibie, has promised much, to reform the country's political system, to hold fair elections, to release political prisoners and to support free media, but many find it difficult to believe that a Suharto crony like Habibie would implement such measures. 

Yet to the surprise of many journalists, Habibie has attempted to keep his word. His government allows journalists to establish independent organisations, thus doing away with the monopoly of the state-controlled Indonesian Journalists' Association. Newspapers will no longer need political connections to get a licence to run a printing press. 

In June he announced that the media would be open to newcomers. The result: many new newspapers immediately entered the market. Three months after the move, the Ministry of Information has issued more than 500 press licences, more than in the entire period of Suharto's 32-year regime. 

New daily newspapers have emerged not only in Jakarta but also in the provincial cities, including Medan in northern Sumatra, Surabaya in eastern Java and Ujungpandang in southern Sulawesi. 

Jakarta-based private radio stations have also begun producing their own news reporting, an area the government had long monopolised. 

Elshinta 90.05 FM went even further with its broadcast of the BBC Indonesian Service in November. That was a bold decision in a country where many government officials and army officers still consider the respected British radio service ''too critical''. 

But media freedom has also brought a new era in sensationalism. Many of the new tabloids, seeking to increase readership, publish speculative and unethical reports that freely mix facts and opinion. Tabloids often spice up their reports with sex and crime. 

The Warta Republik tabloid, for example, published a December report on how former vice president Try Sutrisno and former defence minister Edi Sudrajat had allegedly competed to date a widow. Neither Sutrisno nor Sudrajat were interviewed, and neither was the widow. 

This resulted in lawsuits against the media, including a case that pitted the Jakarta military command against the Tajuk bi-weekly. The military accused the magazine of tarnishing its reputation in a report that said former Jakarta commander Maj-Gen Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, a close associate of Suharto's son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, had been involved in instigating the massive May riots. 

Prabowo himself was transferred from his position one day after the fall of his father-in-law amid widespread speculation that the three-star general had also been involved in kidnapping human-rights activists as well as instigating the May riots, when more than 6,000 buildings burned and some 1,200 people were killed. 

Yet despite the new openness, Indonesian soldiers harassed and beat up more than four dozen journalists between April and November. The military still expels or prohibits entry to foreign journalists at the Jakarta airport. 

John Stackhouse, a New Delhi-based journalist for Toronto's Globe and Mail, was expelled on Nov 10. Stackhouse was told his name was on an Indonesian military blacklist. 

''It is disappointing that, having fully complied with Indonesian immigration procedures, he was denied access to such an important country at such an important time,'' said Globe and Mail foreign editor Patrick Martin. 

As if trying to justify such decisions, Indonesian generals continually accuse journalists of meddling in national politics and bullying the military. 

In one of the most recent incidents, three Indonesian journalists were hospitalised after trying to photograph an anti-Habibie student protest in Jakarta in November. Instead of being cowed, radio and television journalists boldly stepped up their coverage of the protest, vividly demonstrating to their audience how the military had excessively used automatic weapons, batons and other army equipment to crack down on peaceful student protests. 

Goenawan himself, one of the most respected journalists in Indonesia, praised the courageous radio and television journalists, thanking many of them in a simple ceremony last month. 

In October, Goenawan republished Tempo, saying that the magazine aimed to be ''the best quality newspaper in the street''.

The market responded positively. Three months after its republication, foreign media analysts said Tempo had cornered 65 percent of the magazine market in Indonesia. An audit revealed that it had a circulation of 138,000 in December, almost reaching the publication's highest circulation during the 1980s. 

Goenawan and his colleagues say that while they believe that the Suharto era is gone, remnants of his regime continue to persist. The powerful armed forces still hold many key political positions, and they staunchly preserve their dwifungsi doctrine, which allows military involvement in both politics and security matters. 

The role of the media will become more important as Indonesia moves towards its first election in June this year, supposedly the first free election since 1955. 

The Puncak meeting ended up with a consensus that the Indonesian media's new freedom had to be institutionalised. 

Ulil Abshar- Abdalla, a Muslim thinker and columnist who attended the meeting, argued that the freedom was still temporary as long as media laws, and even Indonesia's 1945 constitution, did not accommodate the concept of media freedom. 

The journalists also resolved to help strengthen news organisations, journalist's unions, media schools, publishers' associations and other media-related institutions. In addition they would like to see the emergence of more media-watch-type organisations to monitor and criticise the media. 

''Information is power, and power can be corrupted,'' said Goenawan. 

Press ombudsmen are needed to provide feedback to media organisations about their news coverage. 

Finally, Goenawan and his friends would like to see ownership of the highly concentrated Indonesian media broadened. With their battle against official censorship ending, media activists now seek to build democratic organisations in their own field.

The Nation