Monday, February 11, 2008
JAKARTA – In February 1997, President Suharto made a speech in front of Indonesia’s top editors and media executives in a State Palace ceremony to commemorate the “National Press Day” in Jakarta.
According to media reports, the state-sanctioned Persatuan Wartawan Indonesia, or the Indonesian Journalists Association, organized the event and invited Suharto to deliver the keynote address.
“If there are values, that are against ours, succeeded in penetrating (our society), the press should increase national awareness about their danger and show ways how to end them,” said Suharto. He talked at length about what he called “Pancasila journalism.”
What the media didn’t relate was that three years earlier, Suharto had ordered the closure of three news weeklies: Detik, Editor and Tempo. Suharto also jailed some journalists protesting the closure. He won many street protests and international condemnation. But the PWI issued a statement, saying that it “understood” the banning rationale. A PWI executive also blacklisted 13 journalists, who signed a declaration to establish an independent journalist union.
As if trying to lick the ass of the dictator, PWI executives asked Suharto to lecture the media executives on the “National Press Day.” Suharto happily asked the media to impose self-censorship, saying that the media should filter “foreign values” and enhance “national awareness.”
But Suharto was at the end of his rule. The Asian economic crisis hit Indonesia five months later. In May 1998, Suharto was forced to step down from his 32-year dictatorship amidst massive street protests and spiraling rupiahs.
Now let’s move forward to February 2008. A new president was also invited to deliver a keynote speech at the same “National Press Day,” by the same journalists association: the PWI. This time, the commemoration was held in Semarang.
Suharto is already dead in his mausoleum in Solo. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also an (retired) army general and a former aide to Suharto, is now the president.
In his speech, President Yudhoyono asked the media to exercise “self-censorship,” saying that it should be improved by only reporting "appropriate" news.
"Bans and (state) censorship of the press no longer exist in our country. The press has achieved the freedom it fought for, but the freedom is not absolute," he told some 500 top editors.
"It is the press that should control itself for the good of the nation. The people want the press to provide accurate and objective information," Yudhoyono said.
He criticized some media. "They only think of practical interests. Please don't be like that. Don't be too partisan because the word 'too' is clearly not good." He added the media should maintain its independence by not getting involved in business or political interests.
Interestingly, Tarman Azzam, the PWI president who hosted Yudhoyono, is also a politician. Azzam is a Golkar legislator. In 1994, Azzam was also the PWI executive who blacklisted the 13 journalists and asked the police to jail three reporters.
Probably both Yudhoyono and the editors should learn from Bill Moyers, a television host in New York, that what's important for journalists is not how close they are to power but how close they are to reality. As long as the journalists do not understand that, I’m afraid, history will repeat itself. And please don’t lecture journalists about “self-censorship.” We have too much self-censorship already, thanks to Soeharto.
Andreas Harsono is a journalist with the Pantau media training organization in Jakarta, currently writing his book From Sabang to Merauke: Debunking the Myth of Indonesian Nationalism.