Fri, 25 Apr 2003

Early days -- of strong coffee and tight censorship

Bill Tarrant, Singapore

The phone call came at around 10:30 p.m., after the paper had been put to bed. The voice on the other end of the line identified himself as an Indonesian military spokesman.

The Jakarta Post had just started publication a few weeks before. I was the late duty editor, a young consultant armed with a master's degree in journalism and a few years on a Florida newspaper. I had come to Indonesia to visit my brother and do a little freelancing, but now found myself helping to launch what was soon to become Indonesia's premier English language daily.

"Do you have a report about a bombing of the army barracks in Palembang?" the spokesman asked.

We hadn't heard that, I said, grabbing a pen to take notes and thinking how to retool the front-page layout to accommodate this late breaking story..

"Good," he said. "It's only a rumor. It's not true and you must not print anything on it."

Sifting rumor from fact was both an art and science in Soeharto's Indonesia of the early 1980s. The Jakarta Post was launched in April 1983 at the start of a new five-year Cabinet with the aim of taking a straight-forward journalistic approach to the news of the day, without crossing danger lines.

We began with a crew of veteran Indonesia correspondents, many of whom had worked for foreign news organizations. We drilled for a month on unfamiliar editing and layout skills, putting out mock editions of the paper every day, turning grotesque pages in the beginning to simple, clean and uncluttered efforts at the end.

The newspaper, designed to appeal to foreigners and well educated Indonesians had several innovations: eight comic strips on a lifestyle page, an "odd world" column on the front page, extensive use of photos and graphics, and a modular page design and organization not unlike the International Herald Tribune.

The newspaper quickly established a reputation for its well- reasoned and sometimes hard-hitting editorials under the direction of chief editor Sabam Siagan. Foreign news agencies often quoted them. The Trib began excerpting the Post's editorials in its "Other Opinion" column.

As an English-language newspaper, we had a little more room to push the parameters of press freedom in Indonesia, but not that much. We debated whether to put photos of South Korean demonstrations against the strongman gov ernment of Gen. Chun Doo-hwan on the front page or inside. How to play the fall of Marcos and the rise of "people power" in the Philippines? Street demonstrations against the Soeharto regime were unthinkable then.

In those days, the press censors were a busy, and sometimes capricious lot. Mention of all things Chinese was usually blacked out in foreign publications coming into Indonesia. (A story about Hong Kong's subway system had printer's ink smeared all over a photo of a subway sign with Chinese characters - it could have been a secret code!).

Opposition activities were taboo; discussion of human rights issues circumscribed.

And for the uninitiated American making his first trip abroad, there were so many mysteries, some grim, some wonderful.

Within weeks of the paper's launch and the start of Soeharto's fourth five-year term, the press began reporting "mysterious killings". Bullet-riddled bodies of criminals with a history of violence were found floating in canals and rivers, their hands and feet tied with fishing wire. Then armed forces commander Benny Moerdani called it the work of avenging angels.

In the months to come, a series of mysterious fires and bombings, later blamed on Islamic militants, exposed early fissures in the Soeharto regime. Troops killed a number of rioters in Tanjung Priok port. A Bank Central Asia branch in Chinatown was bombed.

A plot to bomb the great Buddhist Borobudur complex in Central Java was uncovered. Another plot to assassinate Soeharto in his car on the way to work from his Jl. Cendana residence was foiled.

Islamic militants were blamed and authorities began a crackdown. Hardliners like Abu Bakar Bashir fled the country. They were the first sprouts of Islamic militancy in the otherwise placid landscape of Soeharto's New Order.

Mainly, however, this was Suharto's gilded period under "guided democracy".

Indonesia's economy was picking up steam, opening up to foreign investment led by a cadre of New Order technocrats.. Jakarta was playing a more influential role on the regional and world stages, particularly over the Cambodian issue. Political opposition was virtually nonexistent.

The country could afford to indulge more benign mysteries, such as those related to Javanese mysticism, which was also a Soeharto avocation.. In those early days, the Post covered, perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, an eruption of sightings of tuyul -- invisible child-like imps who are pickpocket artists - in East Java.

We invented a persona named "Epicurus", a curmudgeonly and somewhat libidinous character who did restaurant reviews, haranguing bemused waiters at Jakarta's culinary establishments with 19th century tips on dining etiquette ("Always eat peas with a dessert spoon; and curry also.").

The strength and endurance of Indonesia's culture was in inverse proportion to the profound indifference of many Westerners, especially Americans, to the nation's existence. That was a constant source of frustration to Jakarta's establishment, who tirelessly pointed out that the resource-rich archipelago of 13,000 islands straddles key sea lanes linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans and is now the world's fourth most populous country.

Indeed, one of the original missions of the Post was to reflect the dynamic face of Indonesia to the world ("The Journal of Indonesia Today"), while deflecting the country's own tendencies toward introspection. Indonesia, after all, was the West's anti-communist strategic ally in an otherwise turbulent region; its resources and human numbers making it "a sleeping giant".

We had offices, loaned to us from Kompas whose massive compound was on the other side of Jl Palmerah Selatan. Typewriters were the state of the art technology in the newsroom. We did layouts on pieces of paper the size of a broadsheet newspaper, and typed out headlines and captions.

We worked 12-15 hour days in the beginning and I drank kopi bubuk (coffee in the traditional Indonesian style) by the gallon, served Jakarta style in tall glasses with metal lids. I never had a beverage with a metal lid before. They are quite useful, as I found out one time when I neglected to cap my drink and felt the fly swimming frantically in my mouthful of coffee, expelling it with a shout of startled horror on my finished layout.

The windows were often open, letting in the Jakarta symphony - kaki limas (street vendors) with their distinctive cries, toots and whistles; blaring car horns and bird songs. Inside, was the clattering of teleprinters.

Unlike other newspapers, the policy of the Post was not to accept "envelopes" the money routinely given at the end of press conferences for "carfare" and "lunch". The envelopes implied that journalists, like all other segments of society, were expected to do their part in nation-building under the New Order. The government gave newspapers a license to publish and could take it away if publications did not toe the line.

In Indonesia those days, information was guarded and much of it secret and therefore journalists were special. They knew what others did not but had to be careful how they spent that particular currency. As far as the government was concerned, the country had seen factions, conflict and blood-letting in the name of freedom and democracy and the press had a responsibility to help the New Order keep order.

When then French president Francois Mitterrand came to Indonesia in 1986, he and Soeharto went to Bandung to address students who had studied in France. The AFP story described students chanting liberte, liberte and waving anti-government placards.

It caused ripples of excitement in the newsroom, but no Indonesian newspaper could report that story or show a photo of the two leaders against a background of anti-government protesters. We knew that even before the man from the Ministry of Information called.

Instead, we had blanket coverage of the "people power" protests in Manila that day.

Our mantra was that of former vice president Adam Malik, who was fond of saying: "Everything is possible, and everything is impossible in Indonesia".

(Bill Tarrant was at The Jakarta Post from April 1983 to March 1986. He has been a correspondent in Asia for Reuters since 1986.)