On the eve of Indonesia’s first free elections in more than a generation, government officials eagerly point to the country’s open and virtually unfettered press as one of the major accomplishments of interim President B.J. Habibie’s tenure. With the Indonesian economy still reeling from the Asian economic crisis, unrest simmering in many provinces, and the corrupt legacy of former President Suharto’s “New Order” regime still virtually untouched by either official investigators or the courts, the expansion of press freedom is one of the current administration’s few tangible reforms.
“You may do anything,” Habibie told a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI) during a May 14 meeting.

“I will never, never tolerate that the Indonesian government will interfere with the freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is very important. Not only for politics but also for economics.”

Habibie’s comments notwithstanding, the newly free media still face a range of threats–everything from onerous laws that remain on the books to armed paramilitary groups offended by press coverage of their activities. Journalists also risk being blamed by reactionary forces for fomenting disorder and unrest, merely for covering the turmoil that continues to rattle Indonesian society. And even as Habibie acknowledges the important role the media play in educating a citizenry and sustaining a healthy economy, he has been unwilling to use the power of the federal government to ensure the safety of journalists working in embattled East Timor, the territory facing its own historic vote just a month after the federal elections. Despite evidence that elements of the Indonesian military have armed many of the pro-Jakarta militias in East Timor that are responsible for attacking both foreign correspondents and local journalists there, the president and other high-ranking officials say they can do nothing to curb the violence.

In this special report, CPJ explores the new status of the media at this critical crossroads–measuring the extent to which progress has already been made in freeing up the channels for vigorous political debate, and identifying some of the challenges facing the media during this difficult transition period. Part Two of the report concentrates on the particular hazards facing journalists working in East Timor, where violence and threats against the press occur almost daily.

The research and reporting for this work was conducted in Jakarta by A. Lin Neumann, regional consultant to CPJ’s Asia program, who joined the recent delegation to the country sent by IPI. Co-authored by Neumann and CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, Kavita Menon, the report includes excerpts from CPJ’s conversations with Indonesia’s President B.J. Habibie; East Timorese publisher Salvador Ximenes Soares; and opposition party leader Abdul Wahid.