Thu, 25 Mar 1999

Armed Forces optimistic about progress with media

JAKARTA (JP): A military officer says the former dictum of a "free and responsible press" has changed to "a press that is free and democratic".

Brig. Gen. Sudrajat said the shift suggested the media are no longer responsible to the government but have obligations to the people.

While it was now often difficult to differentiate editorial policy and hard news, government liberalization within the media would eventually "attain a high degree of credibility in the eyes of the readers", he said.

The revoking of press licenses, leading to the closure of media organizations, was justified in the past as the definition of a free and responsible press had different associations then.

Sudrajat was speaking on the last day of a two-day seminar held on the media and the government and was sitting in for Lt. Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Armed Forces (ABRI) Chief of Territorial Affairs.

The event, opened on Tuesday by President B.J. Habibie, was organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Minister of Information Muhammad Yunus, a lieutenant general, has championed press freedom with the lifting of a rule enabling the revocation of media licenses.

Formerly, the military was often cited by press members as a key censoring body.

The secretary-general of the Association of Newspaper Publishers, S. Leo Batubara, emphasized that the media had failed in the past to act as a early warning system to those who abused power. He urged the House of Representatives to pass a new media law, drafted by the Indonesian press society, of which he is a member.

The draft bill ensures media access to information including government sources.

Chairman of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, Lukas Luwarso, recalled the irony of the appeal by certain members of the public, who, fearing press freedom "which has only been experienced for 10 months", demanded the government issue a ruling on the media.

He said that with some 22 professional media bodies in existence, the associations should perform an internal watchdog role. He warned that if this function was neglected, in response to "pure or engineered" complaints from the public, rules would be drafted to curb press freedom.

Demonstrations have been staged protesting media organizations, which speakers said indicated that the public has yet to be receptive and tolerant of diverse opinions.

A statement from the Minister of Information said the media has to reflect democratic values itself before it can motivate democracy among the public.

Lukas cited three conditions of media freedom and democracy: first, public awareness that it was people who had sovereignty instead of the government; second, an opinion's truth was relative -- an understanding which would lead to tolerance of other views; and third "a government which can restrain itself against ruling over everything and one which is resilient enough to receive criticism". (anr)