Thursday, August 21, 2003

Indonesia: Media Boom Prompts Quality, Freedom Concerns

Radio Australia, Melbourne, in English 0000 gmt 21 Aug 03

An Indonesian newspaper editor is facing criminal charges after comparing President Megawati Sukarnoputri as a cannibal and leech. The editor of the tabloid-style Rakyat Merdeka is charged with insulting the president, a charge which attracts a possible six-year jail sentence. The trial has prompted concerns of a return to the days of government control.

(Presenter Sonya De Masi) Supratman, the 34-year-old editor of the tabloid-style daily newspaper Rakyat Merdeka, says he's done nothing wrong and is prepared to go to jail in what he describes as a political trial. Central to the issue are four colourful headlines critical of the president; one likening her to a leech, another to a celebrated Javanese cannibal who had recently been in the news. A third implied the president was above mixing with the "common people", or battlers, and another said her mouth reeks of diesel, in a pointed reference to the petrol station interests owned by her husband. All were published in January and February this year, when the government announced controversial plans to raise the cost of fuel, electricity and basic food items.

Supratman says the comments were quotes from protesters who at the time were demonstrating daily against the government:

(Supratman - editor of Rakyat Merdeka) It's not our opinion, our illusion or our fabrication, it's what people were saying and we quoted them and therefore it's not intended as an insult, but as criticism. It's not an insult because it's incumbent on the media to exercise social control.

(De Masi) The charge of insulting the president was once used against President Megawati's father, Indonesia's founder Sukarno, during his fight for independence from the Dutch in the 1930s and 40s. Later, former President Suharto frequently muzzled and imprisoned media critics during his three decades in power.

Indonesia's press has since earned a reputation for being one of Asia's most unrestricted - prompting concerns the government will try and make an example of Supratman to discourage other editors from taking his lead. Andreas Harsono is the managing editor of the monthly Pantau media and journalism magazine.

(Harsono) I agree that the charges against some editors like now, not only Rakyat Merdeka but also Tempo, Kompas and the others, might be a bad precedent. It might affect media freedom in Indonesia, I totally agree with that.

(De Masi) In the four years since the fall of Suharto, there has been a media boom, from 250 newspapers to more than 700 across the country, from around 6,000 working journalists to more than 22,000. Andreas Harsono says in this highly competitive environment, the media often fails to practise self-restraint or always adhere to the highest possible journalistic standards.

(Harsono) The question is who trains these journalists. Who trains their editors? In south-east Sulawesi, a reporter told me he has to write the minimum quota of 90 news reports every month, he has to write more than two news reports every day. You can imagine the quality of the news reporting, that's why it's not surprising if the news reports are not correct, are troublesome, biased or whatever.

(De Masi) Aristides Katoppo is the publisher of the daily newspaper, Sinar Harapan, which was shut down by Suharto's New Order regime in 1988. He says the law is clear about defamation and libel, and editor Supratman at least will have the benefit of a trial to have his case heard.

(Katoppo) The press is not above the law. I think any party who feels aggrieved has the right to appeal to a court of justice. There are three key elements that must be fulfilled. One: accuracy or factuality of what has been reported. Two: it's in the public interest. Three: there's no malice. Now in the case of a public figure I think the case of public interest is not so hard to define.

(De Masi) Rakyat Merdeka editor, Supratman, says the tone of his newspaper is tailored to his readership, who value the direct style of his reporters. He admits his paper's reporting has been strong, but says it was factual, and the headlines in question appeared at a time when community passions were running high.

Supratman acknowledges the concerns of his peers, but says the charges will be vigorously defended.

(Supratman) We are very appreciative of the remarks by our friends, but they also have to bear in mind the world is not static, it develops, and you have to bear in mind the context. What we are doing is exercising social control which may be regarded by others as too strong, but we have to think about the context. It's something we had to do.

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