Wed, 24 Mar 1999

Honest reports could avoid riots: Goenawan

JAKARTA (JP): Senior journalist Goenawan Mohamad told President B.J. Habibie on Tuesday that violence and riots throughout the country could have been avoided through openness and reliable sources of information.

"If there is a place for an honest dialog, a source of reliable information, a source to encounter the poisonous rumors, then, there, the free media can play its social role and obligations," said the chief editor of Tempo newsweekly.

Goenawan spoke before the President, who officially opened the seminar Media and Government: In Search of Solution at the State Palace.

The country, reeling from sectarian clashes in the Maluku capital of Ambon, has been jolted again by renewed ethnic clashes in West Kalimantan.

The poet described 1999 as the second year of true press freedom after the first in 1945, when Indonesia declared its independence.

He said the country's first president, Sukarno, curtailed press freedom with his guided democracy policy 13 years later. An identical policy was applied by his successor Soeharto, he added. Tempo was banned twice during Soeharto's 32-year rule.

"No one can resist, but nothing is immortal," Goenawan said of the darkest years of Indonesian press history.

He expressed astonishment that resurrected press freedom was not only the fruit of the people's years of struggle, but also the will of a Cabinet minister.

"Minister of Information (Mohamad Yunus) and his staff have rediscovered the missing pearls. We note and appreciate it," Goenawan said.

Yunus, a lieutenant general whose military career included battlefield experiences in East Timor, has emerged a stalwart defender of press freedom since taking office in May last year. Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, he recently told critical legislators that he preferred "a newspaper without a government" to "a government without newspapers".

Habibie said freedom of the press should not disrupt moral, ethical and religious values, or encourage public resistance to the law.

"Instead, press freedom is supposed to bear a mission of educating people to uphold the law, moral, cultural and religious values," Habibie said.

"I believe no one wants to use the mass media as a tool to stir up people's emotions, defame one another and disseminate libelous rumors, or other practices that are against the journalistic code of ethics."

He called on citizens to gain greater understanding of political issues to ensure they would not be vulnerable to provocation.

The President demanded journalists' participation in preventing social and political disorder and strengthening national unity.

He also reiterated the government's commitment to make the upcoming general election a success.

"The general election will succeed if it runs in a fair, transparent and smooth manner," he said.

The President said mass media would play a major role during the elections.

"We are in need of mass media which does not hesitate to tell the truth. Say it wrong or right if that is what it is," he said. (prb/amd)