As a deepening financial crisis spiraled out of control, attention focused on President Suharto’s autocratic leadership. International lenders noted that the absence of a free press has exacerbated Indonesia’s turmoil by restricting access to information and allowing widespread corruption to flourish unchecked by the media.

Conditions for the press worsened during the year despite calls for greater transparency as a way out of the crisis. Suharto signed restrictive new broadcast licensing legislation into law in October, adding to already stringent press laws. Many journalists practice self-censorship, while the independent press—especially those allied with the officially unrecognized Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI)—risk prosecution and prison sentences. Access to strife-torn East Timor and areas of ethnic conflict in Acheh and Irian Jaya remains tightly controlled, with foreign journalists and unauthorized local reporters generally barred from covering events.

The broadcast bill requires broadcasters to obtain licenses on a five-year renewable basis and also bars foreign ownership of radio and television outlets. While stations may produce their own news programming, they are required to run news bulletins provided by the state-owned Televisi Republik Indonesi. The bill also requires Internet service providers and cable television outlets to obtain similar licenses. Suharto’s relatives control three of the five privately owned television stations in Indonesia, while the remaining two are controlled by well-connected businessmen.

Prosecutions of students, political leaders, trade unionists, and journalists for speaking out against the government continued. Andi Syahputra, the printer of the alternative magazine Suara Independen (Voice of Independence), published by the AJI, was sentenced to two years and six months in prison for distributing material hostile to Suharto. He had been arrested in October 1996. Two AJI journalists, Eko Maryadi and founding AJI president Ahmad Taufik, were released from prison on parole in July. They had been imprisoned since March 1995 because of their work with AJI and Suara Independen.

Taufik, a recipient of a 1995 International Press Freedom Award, was finally able to receive his award in person from CPJ in November during ceremonies coinciding with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vancouver. Calling his jailers "fascists," Taufik pledged to
continue working toward greater press freedom. Taufik later visited San Francisco, New York, and Washington as a guest of CPJ to meet with journalists, scholars, and others interested in press conditions in Indonesia.

In May, a bloody parliamentary election campaign, hailed by the Suharto government as a "Festival of Democracy," resulted in hundreds of deaths in widespread rioting. Due to the 1996 government ouster of Megawati Sukarnoputri as head of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) and other restrictive moves, many government critics urged a boycott of the election. At least five editors were demoted or suspended for election-related coverage, while 20 journalists were beaten or had their film seized by police in the rioting. Leading opposition parties, human rights groups, and the U.S. government criticized the May 29 polls for irregularities that helped the ruling Golkar Party secure 74 percent of the 425 seats.

The Asian economic crisis caused a steep devaluation of Indonesian currency, sparking a banking crisis and sporadic food riots, and prompting the press to push the limits of freedom by tracking the crisis and reporting on allegedly corrupt officials. "No one in the government can control the media totally," said Andreas Harsono, the Jakarta correspondent for the Nation newspaper of Bangkok, in a meeting with CPJ in December. "There are too many pockets of resistance. Journalists in Indonesia want to be free."

Concern has deepened over who will eventually succeed Suharto, who has been in power since 1965. Despite growing calls for him to step down and concern over his health, he announced his intention to seek a seventh five-year term in rubber-stamp presidential elections scheduled for March 1998. As pressures mount, the attitude of Indonesian authorities toward the press is epitomized by the deportation of human rights activist Lynn Ann Fredrickson from East Timor in November because she appeared to be a journalist: she was taking notes and carrying a camera.