By Andreas Harsono
|A member of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines protests outside the presidential palace in Metro Manila, Philippines, January 17, 2018. © 2018 Reuters
“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”
JAKARTA – In June 1994, the Indonesian government banned three news weeklies --Detik, Editor and Tempo -- triggering a nationwide protest against the government’s repressive regulations against newspapers. Hundreds of young reporters protested against the closures, demanding that the state-sanctioned Indonesian Journalist Association (Persatuan Wartawan Indonesia) should ask President Soeharto to revoke the ban. Being a politically captured group, the PWI instead issued a news release saying that it “understood” Soeharto’s decision.
More than 100 angry journalists, including some senior journalists and columnists, decided to challenge the repressive state by setting up a new union, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen). I was one of the group who gathered in August 1994, in a villa in Sirnagalih village, outside Jakarta, where we declared that we wanted to promote press freedom and to fight for the welfare of media workers.
We were not naïve. We knew it was an illegal move because at that time the Indonesian government only permitted a single organization for journalists. We knew that the Information Ministry, the police, the military, as well as the Indonesian Journalists Association would act against us. A few months later, many of these signatories, me among them, lost their jobs or were banned from working for any Indonesian media outlet. The authorities even arrested several journalists and sentenced them to prison terms. Others moved away from Indonesia.
But it was the opening of a new chapter, at least for me, and compelled me to learn about the situation state of media freedom in Asia. I learned about the needs to have readers’ representatives or ombudspersons in each newsroom. Journalists should be transparent about their motives and methods in covering and writing their stories. If they make mistakes, they should make the correction and apologize. Like what Albert Camus, the French author wrote, “A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”
In January 1995, the new union got an invitation to attend a Hong Kong conference to speak about how media had been banned in Indonesia. In Hong Kong, I met many other Asian journalists, including Jimmy Lai, a media mogul of the Apple Daily in Hong Kong.
Pana Janviroj, then chief editor of The Nation daily in Bangkok, also spoke at the conference. He later asked me to join his newspaper. It was just part of a conversation inside a car that the Freedom Forum, the American group which that the conference, had arranged for us to travel from the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Wanchai to a fancy dinner with the Foreign Correspondents' Club.
After making his offer, Pana asked, “Is that okay?”
The monthly retainer was almost five times my previous salary, plus I could still work for other newspapers. Of course, I said okay. No application letter. No contract. Just a handshake.
He asked me to fly to Bangkok. He introduced me to some of his editors: Kavi Chongkittavorn, Sonny Inbaraj, Steven Gan, Yindee Lertcharoenchok as well as their television broadcaster Thepchai Yong. I began to file my stories in March 1995, working from Jakarta, and later also from Phnom Penh, Yangon and Kuala Lumpur. I covered all sorts of stories, such as Hun Sen ousting Norodom Ranariddh in Cambodia, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, the Asian economic crisis, as well as the tension in East Timor. Aung Zaw, a Burmese journalist, also joined us from Chiang Mai, writing mostly about the military junta inside Myanmar.
In Jakarta, I got to know the CNN correspondent Maria Ressa, who covered the 1996 riots when the Soeharto government orchestrated a political attack against an opposition party boss, Megawati Soekarnopoetri.
I began to meet many passionate champions of journalism in South East Asia. Sheila Coronel, who helped set up the Philippines Centre for Investigative Journalism, agreed to train Indonesian journalists in Medan, Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, and Makassar in 1997-1998. I also enjoyed the friendship of many Far Eastern Economic Review journalists in Hong Kong.
I then helped establish a number of media rights advocacy groups, including the Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information with Goenawan Mohamad, Isaac Santoso, Yosep Adi Prasetyo and others. In Bangkok, Coronel, Chongkittavorn and other journalists set up the South East Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA) in 1997, promoting press freedom in the region.
The Asian economic crisis that started in mid-1997 triggered political instability, and later ethnic and religious violence in Indonesia, and led directly to the fall of the authoritarian President Soeharto in May 1998. Thailand, where the crisis kicked off in July 1997, faced massive economic dislocation that heavily impacted politics and the media. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mohammed Mahathir, surprisingly, survived the crisis, but ended up putting his deputy Anwar Ibrahim in prison on bogus charges.
The BBC correspondent Jonathan Head broke the news that the new Indonesia president, B.J. Habibie, had agreed, in an interview with him, to hold a referendum in 1999 on the political status of East Timor. But many journalists in Indonesia have borne witness to large-scale sectarian and communal violence in which a total of about 90,000 people have been killed, ranging from sectarian violence in the Moluccas islands to the turmoil in East Timor after the United Nations-organized referendum.
Nascent, independent media faced a lot of challenges because of the Southeast Asian economic crisis, losing advertisement income, cutting their newsroom budgets, and dealing with more complicated political situations, both in their capitals and their many diverse provinces, like Papua in Indonesia, where an independence movement led to a violent crackdown. The media, like many other businesses, were overextended. But my media friends, who were pioneers for media freedom in the region, persisted and ultimately prospered.
Twenty years later
Over these past two decades, those friends went their separate ways. Steven Gan returned to Kuala Lumpur, setting up Malaysiakini. Santoso set up the KBR radio network, sharing his network’s news content with more than 700 radio stations throughout Indonesia. Maria Ressa wrote a book on the Jemaah Islamiyah terror network in South East Asia while staying in Singapore with a fellowship. She later set up Rappler news website in the Philippines, and of course, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her courage in standing up for press freedom. Aung Zaw moved his Irrawaddy magazine operation from Chiang Mai to Yangon, and then after the Myanmar military’s coup in February 2021, moved it back into exile. In Jakarta, Goenawan Mohamad republished his Tempo magazine. These news organizations produced quality journalism. And my friends became award-winning journalists.
Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her house arrest in Myanmar, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to visit Yangon in November 2012, praising the reform that was taking place in Myanmar. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the 2015 election.
But starting in 2012, the older sectarian and racist instincts arose in Myanmar, with anti-Muslim hate speeches spreading especially in Rakhine State, targeting Rohingya and other Muslim minorities. Hate speech on social media stirred attacks against other Muslims in central and northern Myanmar in 2013. This culminated in August 2017 in massive crimes against humanity and acts of genocide by government forces against the Rohingya.
These developments pointed to a new way to share information. In Myanmar, the main platform was and remains Facebook. Changes in the way that people seek and receive information are challenging the Southeast Asia news media too.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and other social media companies now pose a serious challenge to the popularity and the influence of traditional media. These companies have changed how Indonesians, Filipinos, Thais, Cambodians, and others in Southeast Asia and around the world consume information. Many of these consumers are still learning the difference between real news reporting versus propaganda from an interested party, and don’t fully understand the research, fact checking, writing and editorial review processes that distinguishes solid journalism.
The reality is that journalists are no longer gatekeepers of the news. They have lost the role of helping to determine what information and accounts of events should reach the public, and what doesn’t. With the internet and social media, everyone is now their own circulation manager and editor. Indonesia’s Press Council calculated that Indonesia has now 47,000 “media organizations”, mostly “citizen journalist” website only operations, a massive rise from the only 1,000 or so more formal media organizations that existed in 1998.
In Indonesia, social media has helped fan the flames of division. Religious intolerance plagues Indonesia. Minorities including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Ahmadiyah, and Shia Muslims, as well as native faith believers and followers of new religions like Millah Abraham, face discrimination, intimidation, and violence. There is also widespread discrimination against women and LGBT people.
In May 2017, a Jakarta court sentenced a former Jakarta governor, Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, a Christian, to two years in prison for blasphemy against Islam. Ahok was accused of defaming Islam during the Jakarta election. More than 150 people have been sent to prison for blasphemy in post-Suharto Indonesia, a huge increase from only 10 cases previously.
Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organization based in Paris, France, published the first worldwide press freedom index in October 2002, and over the last two decades, it annually recorded the slow decline of press freedom in South East Asia.
In 2022, the situation became worse in most countries in South East Asia. Myanmar remained the worst among these 11 countries. Newly independent East Timor became the freest, having no criminal defamation law, though, as President Jose Ramos-Horta has repeatedly complained, it is still facing resistance to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In general, the other 10 countries get worse – and in this analysis, we can certainly include the single party dictatorship Laos, which the French organization inexplicably didn’t calculate.
Thailand, which unlike other countries in the region, has never been colonized, dropped from the 66th on the chart in 2002 to the 115th in 2022. It shows that Thailand does not necessarily have a better legal infrastructure than the former European colonies like Malaysia, the Philippines, or Vietnam with a Soviet-style legal system. Thailand still maintains the lese majeste law “to protect” the monarchy, including the king, the queen, the heir and the regent-- from defamation. The penalty is 3 to 15 years in prison for each violation, and those charged invariably spend long periods in pretrial detention.
Ranking of press freedom in South East Asia in 2002 and 2022