Tue, 09 May 2000

Forget a free press

The way the Jawa Pos newspaper and the Ansor Muslim youth group settled their dispute over the weekend has set a dangerous precedent which not only undermines the goal of a free press and freedom of expression but, ultimately, democracy. What is most disturbing about the affair is that President Abdurrahman Wahid, as one of the country's leading democratic figures, did nothing to prevent the use of mob intimidation by Ansor to force Jawa Pos into submission. The President could have used his immense influence because for 15 years he chaired the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) mass organization to which Ansor is affiliated. The least he could have done is to condemn the action by Banser, Ansor's civilian guards.

Banser members occupied the office of the newspaper in Surabaya, East Java, on Saturday, to protest articles accusing the President and top NU leaders of corruption. Following tense negotiations, and after Jawa Pos failed to publish its Sunday edition, the sides reached a settlement.

The newspaper will issue a retraction and an apology for seven consecutive days, starting Monday, for the offending articles. It has agreed to make a donation for the building of a mosque but not the Rp 35 billion (US$4.4 million) first sought by Banser. The newspaper will investigate the reporters responsible for the articles, with the possibility they will be fired.

It is not so much the settlement that troubles us as the way it was reached. It justifies the use of mob violence to settle differences, especially differences with the media; it is becoming a case of mobocracy, or rule by the mob. Next time someone has a bone to pick with a newspaper, or a TV or radio station, just send the mob over. While Banser is not the first to have complained at a newspaper office, it sets a precedent in using force to occupy the premises. Banser may claim victory, but it has done irreparable damage to the country's quest for democracy, the goal its onetime chief, now the President, has long fought for.

The use of force and terror against newspapers, on whatever pretext, cannot be condoned. It goes against the principles of a free press. Journalists, not just from Jawa Pos but also from other media, cannot work effectively with the threat of violent repercussions hanging over their heads. It is a vile, tacit form of censorship because journalists will now be hesitant to report or write their findings out of fear. It takes us back to the days of the Soeharto regime when the media, for 32 long years, conducted its own censorship to avoid offending the powers that be. Although President Abdurrahman has since dissolved the information ministry, the job of bullying the media has now been assumed by others, including Banser.

As we hope the Jawa Pos-Banser row would be contained, all concerned -- the media, law enforcement agencies and the public -- should contemplate their role in ensuring that the media continues to operate in an environment free from terror and intimidation, in the interest of the public at large.

The media is not entirely blameless for prompting the public to have second thoughts about excesses of press freedom. We have seen time and again how some members of the media abuse their position by indulging in muckraking and reckless journalism. Some may have been committed on purpose, others out of sloppiness or lack of professionalism. Overall, the media has been quite responsible in using its freedom, but remember that it takes only the irresponsible behavior of a minority to harm the reputation of the entire industry. Peer pressure is therefore essential in ensuring that all media use caution and wisdom. This calls for a more effective role of media watchdogs.

Law enforcement agencies must also get their acts together. The 1999 Press Law both guarantees press freedom and protects the public against abuses. In addition, the Criminal Code provides stiff punishment for slander and libel cases. Yet, we have not seen any reckless media being convicted under any of the laws. This only shows how deep is the public mistrust of the law and the law enforcement agencies. They would rather take their case directly to newspapers, using force if necessary, to get what they want.

Since a free press and freedom of expression are pillars of democracy, the public too must ensure that they are continually observed. Had Indonesia followed other countries in marking World Press Freedom Day on May 3 last week, the message would probably have been received by the public that the free press ultimately serves their interests more than anyone else. In the future, everyone, without exception and including the President and Banser, must turn to courts of law to resolve disputes they have with the media. Until they do this, Indonesia may as well forget about a free press, and with it, democracy.