Saturday, November 22, 1997

Indonesia's tireless fighter for freedom of the press

South China Morning Post Interview 

Ahmad Taufik's life in many ways parallels that of recently released Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng. Both were thorns in the side of authority and both were incarcerated because they refused to be silenced. You have the choice of but Taufik is the luckier of the two either being in contrast to the 18 years Mr Wei a courageous spent in jail for sedition, the man or a Indonesian journalist was released in coward July this year after having served just 28 months of a three-year sentence. 

At the time of his arrest in 1995, the Jakarta-born investigative journalist had built a reputation for exposing the dark side of Indonesian society. He had a knack for exposing scandals and questionable public policies under the Suharto regime, such as the government's land-clearing policy that has resulted in the annual problem of forest fires. 

"I raised concerns about the environmental impact [of the land-clearing] before the recent heavy smog that has affected neighbouring regions," he said. 

His boldness finally took its toll when he penned an article in 1995 for the local Independent magazine, exposing a deplorable case of conflict of interest. It revealed the stakes held in several domestic news organisations by Mr Harmoko, the then Minister of Information. 

As a result, Taufik was accused of having "sown the seeds of hatred against the government". But it was obvious to him why he had become a target of hatred. 

During his period of detention prior to the sentencing, he was shown a letter that Mr Harmoko had written to the military to express his indignation at Taufik's magazine piece. 

A man of high spirits who can now laugh at his own misfortune, Taufik, 32, said during a stopover visit to Hong Kong last weekend: "You have the choice of either being a courageous man or a coward." 

Putting on a defiant face, he says he rarely worries about his safety nowadays. "I could have been beaten or killed in prison," he said. 

"Some prison officers had warned me of the possibility, but I was friends with criminals in the same jail. So it would have required a huge amount of money to get a criminal to kill me." 

Taufik, who developed a slight knee problem in jail, stopped in Hong Kong on his way to Vancouver to belatedly receive the 1995 International Press Freedom Award of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. 

He shared his experience at a talk organised by the Freedom Forum for local and foreign journalists. "There are many organisations outside Indonesia who respect what we do," he said. 

"I'd be happier if people in Indonesia respected us too. A lot of the people are afraid to show their support due to pressure from the paramilitary regime." 

Taufik's integrity is admirable. While in prison he continued writing, secretly filing to Indonesian publication reports on corruption within the police and the judiciary. He also condemned the abuse of power by prison officers. 

His interpreter, Andreas Harsono, a friend and the Jakarta correspondent for the Bangkok-based Nation newspaper, chipped in: "He was moved from one prison to another, from one remote place to another more remote place, because of his tendency to write in his cell." But the punishment did not have the desired effect. 

While in the same prison as Xanana Gusamo, the resistance leader from East Timor now serving a 20-year jail term for leading the outlawed East Timorese pro-independence movement, he interviewed the rebel in secret while they were performing gardening chores together. 

Prior to his release, he wrote to Charles Goddard, a local representative of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association, inquiring about the prospects for press freedom in post-handover Hong Kong. But he suspects the letter never left the jail, because he did not receive a reply. 

He raised the same question during his brief visit here. "I hope Hong Kong can set an example of democracy for other parts of China," he said. 

Taufik now specialises in crime reporting for the Jakarta-based D&R news weekly, challenging the authorities, for example, by revealing the military's links with the underworld. It does not bother him that his work and that of his colleagues is often subject to censorship. Neither has the presence of potential risks dampened his enthusiasm. 

His zeal is shared by a group of fellow journalists back home. In August 1994, two months after three weeklies, Tempo, Detik and Editor, were officially banned by the Government, they came together to form the Alliance of Independent Journalists, a body that seeks to promote press freedom in the country. Taufik was its first president. 

He realises an uphill battle lies ahead in their fight for a freer environment, but said: "We'll do whatever we can; we'll test the limits of tolerance of the current regime." Despite his commitment, Taufik, who is married with a son, said: "I never put myself under stress. That's why I managed to persist in my career. In jail too, I even gained weight." 

The personal satisfaction he derives from his work is another incentive for him to remain in the field. "I really enjoy my work," he grinned. 

"It allows me to have access to different information, and disclose to people information that they are not aware of. It's like a priest giving sermons. "I feel free when I am writing. We are oppressed people and what we can do is to keep voicing our views." 

Also a staunch fighter for democracy under a totalitarian regime, he is unlike the internationally known Mr Wei in that he is able to continue his activities in his home country. "I am really sorry that Mr Wei has to go abroad. He should remain in his own country and fight with his own people. But I do hope other dissidents will be released after Mr Wei." 

Showing a certain degree of optimism for future changes in China, he said: "Unlike Suharto, Jiang Zemin has just risen to power. I hope he'll support democracy and not repeat the mistakes of the past Chinese leaders."

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