Indonesia’s Press Flourishes Despite Uncertainty

Journalists in Jakarta estimate that 1,000 new publications have sprung up throughout the country since Suharto was forced from office a year ago. While some of them are supported by one or another of the 48 political parties vying in the June 7 elections, many others profess independence and seek readers rather than partisan victories. Where once a single official journalists’ union, the Indonesian Journalists Association (PWI), held sway over the entire profession by official decree, some two dozen new press associations have formed in the past year. The Ministry of Information, which used to be the chief gatekeeper and stumbling block to anyone seeking to open a newspaper or magazine, now processes license applications in a matter of hours and aims to do away with official registration altogether.
Indeed, the aggressiveness of the new press can be startling. One paper is called simply Oposisi! (Opposition), and its regular broadsides against Suharto’s legacy of corruption and nepotism leave readers no doubt about what it is opposed to. Another is called Gugat!, which means “accuse” in Indonesian. The tabloid has as its motto “Trial by the Press.”

“What we have done here is for the sake of the country,” Information Minister Yunus Yosfiah told the CPJ-IPI delegation. “Because we do believe that freedom of the press will help our democracy.”

Yunus is an unlikely champion of the free press, given his past as the military commander who led an October 1975 assault on the East Timorese town of Balibo in which Indonesian troops murdered five journalists–two Britons, two Australians, and a New Zealander–who were attempting to film a documentary on the invasion. In a recent interview with Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, Yunus for the first time admitted leading the military campaign in Balibo, but continued to deny any direct responsibility for the massacre of the journalists. CPJ has called for an official investigation that would clarify his role in the infamous attack.

Indonesian journalists have been loath to push Yunus about his past, giving him high marks for the work he is doing now to protect their interests. In addition to reforming the licensing process, Yunus has invited experts from the London-based anti-censorship group Article 19 and representatives of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to help reshape Indonesia’s restrictive press laws. He has also quietly sought out senior journalists for advice, and risked the ire of his colleagues in suggesting that the government ought to get out of the information business. By abolishing regulations that allowed the information ministry to revoke publishing licenses, censor foreign publications, and blacklist foreign journalists, Yunus has given further evidence of his commitment to improve conditions for the independent media. Many say that without him, Habibie would not have gone as far or as quickly down the road toward a free press.

Despite the rapid improvement in working conditions, journalists in Jakarta note that they still must operate with virtually no legal protections. A draft press law–known as Draft 10B–has been endorsed by both Yunus and most journalists’ associations, but it has yet to be passed by the parliament. If adopted, the law would end government licensing, create a press council to mediate disputes, and enshrine the media’s right to scrutinize government affairs.

Currently, both local press groups and international organizations such as CPJ and IPI have urged the government to enact the press law as soon as possible. Many press observers are hoping the government will use the lame-duck parliamentary session scheduled after the June elections as the opportunity to push through the new law.

While a pending broadcast law provides for greater government regulation of electronic media than that proposed for print, it is still a great improvement over past practice, in which the government dictated the content of all broadcast news programming. The country’s electronic media have already become quite open, despite the fact that most television networks and many radio companies are still Suharto’s cronies.

The ongoing problems with ownership are apparently mitigated by the fact that the newly open marketplace has shown little tolerance for the party line. With Suharto discredited and requirements for pro-government content lifted, the ruling Golkar Party no longer has the ability to dominate the political scene unchallenged. Owners of broadcast outlets are under pressure to meet the public’s appetite for credible news and information. Leaders of the major opposition parties voice little criticism of broadcast coverage, and most insist that they are getting a fair amount of airtime for their views.

It can, however, be a sobering experience to push even reform-minded activists on the subject of a free press, because there exists a deep fear of disorder and chaos in Indonesia, and many worry that a free press might become irresponsible.

“A press law is needed to give responsibility to the press,” said Abdul Wahid, the international relations chairman of the National Awakening Party (PKB), a major Muslim-based opposition party. “Sometimes there is too much freedom with the press. It needs to obey the rules.”

Fikri Jufri, the publisher of Indonesia’s leading news magazine, Tempo, worries about the impact of such attitudes. “We are used to living in an environment in which order and development are needed and constantly emphasized. That breeds a mentality of censorship.” Banned by the government in 1994, Tempo resumed publication last October, and Jufri says it is a race against time to see if the press can convince the public and political leaders that the benefits of free expression far outstrip its costs.

Journalists are attempting to forestall future repression by holding seminars and discussions on ethics and working to build a press council that will be responsive to public concerns over irresponsibility. Publishers are quietly hoping that new publications don’t offend public sensibilities by pushing the envelope too far in what remains a conservative, overwhelmingly Muslim country. Media groups have supported the creation of a dozen or more watchdog organizations around the country that investigate and respond to complaints against the press. Even the most vocal of Indonesia’s press associations, the once-banned Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (Alliance of Independent Journalists, or AJI), has started a monthly publication called Independen Watch to monitor the quality of press reports.

But Leo Batubara, the executive director of the Indonesian Newspaper Publishers Association, says that the focus must remain on watching the government, whose operations remain opaque and where access to information is still severely limited by an official culture of secrecy. And the proposed new press law will not prevent journalists from being subject to criminal penalties as stipulated under Indonesia’s harsh criminal code, which contains an estimated 35 provisions that could be used to intimidate the press. Such vague offenses as discussing Marxism, defaming public officials, disturbing social harmony, creating unease in others, and intruding on privacy can still be invoked against journalists, and it seems likely that press advocates will turn their attention to revisions of the penal code once the press law is enacted.

Yunus has convened a committee to review such statutes, and Habibie has pledged to revise the criminal code if he is re-elected. Other reforms–such as a freedom of information act modeled on the law in the United States, or a blanket constitutional provision guaranteeing free speech–have been discussed but are not yet on the legislative agenda.

Older media professionals caution that the euphoria of the post-Suharto era could prove short-lived. In the first years after “President for Life” Sukarno was overthrown in 1966, there was also a burgeoning public debate and greater openness before Suharto gradually shut the door to a free press. “We have to say never again,” said Batubara. “We have to keep fighting.”