Tuesday, June 01, 1999

The Future for Media Freedom in Post-Suharto Indonesia

Andreas Harsono
Change Exchange

Editor's note: A version of this article first appeared in The Nation, a daily newspaper in Thailand.

About two weeks
after Indonesia strongman Suharto stepped down from his 32-year presidency, Indonesian editor, poet, and political activist Goenawan Mohamad brought together a group of journalists in a Puncak villa in the southern belt of Jakarta.

Most of the journalists who attended the Puncak meeting also work for the Jakarta-based Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information (ISAI), a low-profile think tank whose main objective is to achieve media freedom in Indonesia. The journalists set up the group in 1994, a few months after the Suharto government closed down Indonesia’s oldest weekly news-magazine, Tempo, at the time, Goenawan was its editor-in-chief.

Goenawan had just one agenda item for the Puncak meeting: How should journalists prepare for the huge political changes to come in Indonesia?

Recent Changes to Media Freedom

Suharto did not step down voluntarily on May 21, 1998. He was forced to resign amid nationwide student protests and massive rioting in my parts of Indonesia. More than 6,000 buildings were burned, some 1,200 people killed in the fires, and many Indonesians of Chinese descent victimized.

Suharto’s successor, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, promised to reform the country’s political system, hold fair elections, release political prisoners, and support a free media. Many found it difficult to believe that a Suharto crony like Habibie would implement such measures. 

To the surprise of many journalists, Habibie has tried to keep his word. In Juni 1998, he announced a bold decision to open the media to all newcomers. His government has allowed journalists to establish independent organizations, cutting down the monopoly of the state-controlled Indonesian Journalists Association. Newspaper would no longer need political connections to get a license to run a printing press.

The result: Many new newspapers immediately entered the market. Within three months, the Ministry of Information had issued more than 500 press licenses --more than the Suharto regime issued in the 32 years of his rule. New daily newspaper emerged not only in Jakarta, but also in provincial cities, including Medan in northern Sumatra, Surabaya in the eastern part of Java, and Ujung Pandang in southern Sulawesi.

Private radio stations raced into news reporting –an area the government had monopolized– after the collapse of the government-controlled Radio Republik Indonesia. Information Minister Muhammad Yunus Yosfiah declared the private stations could reduce the compulsory relay of the RRI news reports from 14 times to three times per day, a huge relief for millions of Indonesians who had become terminally bored with government propaganda.

Jakarta-based private stations immediately began producing their own news reports. In November 1998, Elshinta 90,05 FM went even further, broadcasting the BBC Indonesian Service. This was a bold decision in country where many government officials and army officers still consider the respected British radio service “too critical.”

In October, Goenawan began publishing Tempo again. With a publication level of 138,000, it is nearing its highest level reached in the 1980s.

Challenges to Media Freedom

With the new openness, there is also the emergence of sensationalism. Tabloids tend to spice up their reports with sex and crime, and many publish speculative and irresponsible reporting that feely mixes facts and opinions. Law suites result, such as the one that pits the Jakarta military command against the bi-weekly publication Tajuk. The military accused the magazine of tarnishing its reputation in a report that former Jakarta commander Major General Sjamsuddin, a close associate of Suharto’s son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, was involved in instigating the May 1998 riots. 

There are other tensions with the military. Goenawan and his colleagues believe that Suharto is gone but, to an extent, his regime is here to stay. Habibie knew Suharto for more than 40 years. Members of the powerful armed forces still hold many key political positions in Indonesia. Also, the militaristic Dwifungsi doctrine, which authorizes the army to be involved both in politics and security matters, remains preserved.

Indonesian generals continue to accuse journalists of meddling in national politics and bullying the military. The military responds by expelling or prohibiting entry to many foreign journalists. For example, Indonesian soldiers harassed and beat up more than four dozen journalists between April and November 1998.

In November, there Indonesian journalists were hospitalized after trying to photograph an anti-Habibie student protest in Jakarta. Radio and television journalists, however, boldly stepped up their coverage of the protest, vividly demonstrating to their audience the military’s executive use of automatic weapons, batons, and peaceful student protests. Goenawan, one of the most respected journalists in Indonesia, praised the courageous radio and television journalists, thanking many of them in a simple ceremony in December 1998.

Looking Forward

The role the media will become more important as Indonesia moves toward is first election in June 1999—supposedly the first election since 1995. (Suharto rose to power in 1965. During his rule, seven election --which took place every five years—were carefully tailored to give legitimacy to his one-man rule).

Beyond the election, the Indonesian media’s new freedom must become institutionalized. Political change will not take place in one or two years, but in term of fifteen. The Puncak meeting of journalists ended with four long term strategies to achieve this:

Change the draconian media law inherited from Suharto. Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, a Muslim thinker and columnist who attended the meeting, said that press freedom is still temporary as long as the media law, and even Indonesia's 1945 Constitution, fail to accommodate the concept of media freedom.

Strengthen media-related institutions, including new organizations, journalists’ unions, media schools, and publisher associations, “Information is power. And power can be corrupted,” in sensational media and partisan newspapers. 

Create more media watch organizations to monitor and criticize the media. Criticism is needed to strengthen the media, the journalists said. Press ombudsmen are also needed to provide feedback to media organizations about internal decisions and news coverage.

Broaden the ownership of Indonesia media, which is now highly concentrated in the hands of a few.

Their battle against official censorship ending, media activists --“territorial soldiers” as they call themselves-- now have to institutionalize democratic organizations in their own field. 

Andreas Harsono, 1995 International Policy Advocacy participant, is Secretary of the Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information. ISAI is a low-profile think tank whose main objective is to achieve media freedom in Indonesia. To contact Andreas' e-mail harsono@nation.nationgroup.com.

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