Mon, 22 May 2000

A setback for reform

As a rule, reporters are not an easy lot to get along with. They pester people and intrude on their privacy. They shove and jostle with each other and with others to get as close as possible to their sources of information. If necessary, they are not averse to twisting people's words to serve their own ends.

That, at least, is the impression of media workers that has somehow become implanted in the minds of all too many people.

To be honest, it must be said that many members of the media themselves have played a part in fortifying such an image -- the electronic media, for example, by sending out, all with good intentions, strong visual images of news events as they happen, such as of hordes of reporters besieging public figures, or the yellow journalism practiced by some media.

In truth, though, much press work is done quietly by responsible reporters who see it as their duty to present the public with information that is relevant, accurate, responsible and timely, all in an ethical and conscientious manner.

There can be little doubt that all that has been said is well enough understood by those whose job or position in the community makes it necessary to stay in close contact with the media.

A prime example is President Abdurrahman Wahid, who in the not so distant past was a well-known columnist and who subsequently became chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's biggest Muslim organization.

Given such a background, it is not at all surprising that Abdurrahman became the first ever Indonesian president to take concrete steps to ensure that freedom of the press would prevail in Indonesia.

He even disbanded the once-powerful ministry of information to make sure that no one would be looking over the shoulders of media editors so that they could decide, without government intervention, what news they and they alone considered fit for the media to print.

The immediate rewards of the government's stance with regard to the media can be easily witnessed anywhere where people gather together.

Newsstands at bus stations, in shopping areas and along busy streets are filled with all sorts of new publications, ranging from the most sober newspapers and periodicals to scandal sheets.

Yet, of late, a number of signs have emerged that seem to indicate that perhaps even President Abdurrahman has had enough of the unbridled euphoria in the media business, and that a change of heart has taken place, if not with the President himself then among some of his close assistants.

Media workers, for example, have been rather disagreeably surprised at Abdurrahman's failure to condemn the recent attack by members of Banser -- the paramilitary arm of his Nahdlatul Ulama organization -- on Jawa Pos daily in Surabaya for an allegedly libelous report.

The President instead rebuked the newspaper for bad reporting.

The most recent cause of friction between the media and the President's office concerns restrictions imposed on palace reporters covering events at the presidential office.

The friction resulted in a day-long coverage boycott of the presidential activities on Wednesday.

Of course, in this latest case palace officials are within their rights to arrange things so that the media's coverage does not get in the way of the President's activities or those of his ministers and assistants.

What must be kept in mind is that the job of reporters and the media they work for is to provide the public with information that is relevant, timely, accurate and responsible. For them to achieve that, proper access to news sources must be guaranteed.

Let us hope that last week's conflict at the presidential office is a result of a misunderstanding and that an arrangement that is satisfactory to all can be found as soon as possible.

A shift in principles away from a free press, however small, on the part of the Abdurrahman administration would amount to a serious setback in this country's reform movement.