Wednesday, April 26, 2000

Taking Risks for Freedom of the Press

By Norman Solomon

One day in the spring of 1995, some policemen arrived and took Ahmad Taufik away.

His crime? Independent journalism.

The Indonesian authorities condemned him for "sowing hatred against the government" -- in other words, writing honestly about such matters as human rights.

He'd been a staff reporter for Tempo, a mainstream magazine, until dictator Suharto banned it and two other Indonesian news weeklies in 1994. Then Taufik helped to found the Alliance of Independent Journalists and served as the organization's president.

The unauthorized group began to publish a magazine. Soon Taufik was in prison. He remained locked up for more than two years.

A few days ago, I met Taufik in California. Later, looking at his card, it dawned on me that the words under his name speak volumes: "The Alliance of Independent Journalists." The man is unrepentant.

Taufik has been visiting the United States with another Indonesian journalist, Andreas Harsono. Both are in their early 30s. They speak quietly, without retension. They don't tout themselves as courageous. But they are.

For years now, when the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists releases its annual list of the planet's 10 worst enemies of the press, Suharto's name is on it. "Strict press licensing, censorship and the threat of imprisonment," the Committee says, "have combined to make the Indonesian press among the least free in the world."

Taufik described the situation: "Critical members of society are put behind bars and declared anti-government or communists, or even murdered. Journalists who try to be critical are intimidated and are under the constant threat of their publications being banned."

And the repression of journalists is just one aspect of the suffering that continues under Suharto's dictatorship, which has lasted for a third of a century.

When we see news about Indonesia -- the fourth most populous nation in the world -- the focus is usually on economic trends and prospects for foreign investors. Those routine stories are provided by American journalists who worry about paying their bills and advancing their careers, not going to prison.

Indonesia's government cares a great deal about its image in the U.S. press. If the coverage were more thorough here, pressure would increase for an end to Indonesia's political imprisonments, killings and torture.

Last year, while Ahmad Taufik was still in prison, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize went to two men who have come to symbolize resistance to Indonesia's murderous occupation of East Timor -- activist Jose Ramos-Horta and spiritual leader Bishop Carolos Felipe Ximenes Belo.

It was a golden opportunity for the U.S. news media to finally do some in-depth reporting on that occupation, which dates back to Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975.

But now, a full year after getting their Nobel Peace Prizes, Ramos-Horta and Belo are two of the most under-reported recipients of that award in the history of American journalism. At least 200,000 Timorese people were slaughtered by the Indonesian invaders, who continue to occupy East Timor. But the ongoing crisis has elicited little more than yawns from the American mass media.

Inclined to take their nods from the White House and Capitol Hill, the news media in this country have failed to report on the resistance to the Suharto regime for what it is -- a pro- democracy movement.

"The government is now only supported by the military and the bureaucracy," says Harsono, who appears in a new documentary film about Indonesia -- "One Struggle, One Change" -- produced by Global Exchange, a human rights group based in San Francisco.

For decades, the rulers in Jakarta have boosted their military might with arms shipments from Washington. Today, U.S. business investments in Indonesia -- estimated at $30 billion -- include extensive oil and mining interests.

These days, Indonesian workers are providing very cheap labor for manufacturers of products such as Nike shoes. With big money at stake, human rights principles get overshadowed.

Ahmad Taufik and some of his Indonesian colleagues have taken big risks. American journalists should be willing to take small ones.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."