Tue, 24 Jun 2003

Indonesian press needs to face its own public

Janet Steele, Associate Professor, School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University

A few years ago at the annual Fulbright conference in Yogyakarta, I heard Professor Daniel Lev describe a personal "epiphany" that he had experienced many years ago when, as a graduate student doing research in Indonesia, he came to the surprising realization that young Indonesian men and young American men viewed sex in exactly the same way.

Perhaps my personal epiphany occurred in 1997 when, as a Fulbright professor in the American Studies program at the University of Indonesia, I agreed to meet with a group of mid- level reporters and editors at Media Indonesia on a weekly basis in order to talk about journalism. To my great surprise, I realized that even during the New Order, Indonesian and American journalists shared almost exactly the same understanding of what makes journalism "good."

The values of good journalism are not a secret: They are accuracy, objectivity, fairness, balance, and independence. So many of the recent problems with the press in Indonesia come from the perception that journalists are not acting "responsibly." The problem is that the idea of press "responsibility" was perverted during the New Order to mean "responsibility to government authorities."

Today, in this new era of press freedom, to whom is the press responsible? To the public. And who should be enforcing these good journalistic values? Journalists themselves.

In a democracy, the government doesn't enforce the rules of good journalism. Instead, reporters and editors regulate themselves through the application of their own professional ethics and values.

This is happening today in Indonesia. Institutions like the Institute for the Study of Free Flow of Information (ISAI), the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Yogyakarta Insitution for Research, Education and Publication (LP3Y) provide advanced training for journalists. News organizations have created ombudsmen and media watches that respond directly to the concerns of the public. And of course the Press Council, under the guiding hand of Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, has made great strides towards peacefully resolving disputes between the press and the public. Each of these institutions has the capacity to serve the public interest and deserves our wholehearted support.

But there are still many challenges facing the press today, many of which are the unfortunate legacy of the New Order. We see these challenges in the reporting on Aceh, and in the idea that a responsible press must be "patriotic" or "nationalistic," even at the cost of not reporting on the truth. We also see these challenges in the rise of thuggery (premanisme), and in the recent physical attacks on journalists. These attacks are both frightening and inexcusable.

In a democracy, the press exists to serve the public. For most of the New Order, discussions about press responsibility were conducted between the press and the government, and the public was not involved. It was as if the press, the government, and the people were all seated in huge auditorium. The government was high up on the stage, and the press was seated in the first few rows. The public was in the back. The press and the government were engaged in a dialog, but the public was silent. They were left completely out of the conversation. This situation has had very serious consequences.

The greatest challenge facing Indonesian journalists today is the need to "turn around" -- to face the public, and include them in the conversation.

For too long during the New Order, the public had no legitimate means of channeling its aspirations. As a result, the people expressed themselves through demonstrations, riots, and worse. It is now up to the press to help create new means of listening to and responding to the public's concerns. And it is the responsibility of all of us to create new channels to bring the public back into the dialogue, and to work to educate citizens about the vital role of the press in a democracy.

In authoritarian regimes, governments fear the truth. During the history of the New Order, most clamp-downs on the press occurred not because the press published falsehoods, but because the press published the truth. Today, in this era of reformasi, most officials agree with the idea that the press should be allowed to do its job, seeking the truth and providing vital information to the people.

Yet, there are still some people who seem to think that a news story is more dangerous if it is true; that if a publication reports on the facts, and if readers use these facts to draw their own conclusions, that the press is somehow at fault. That the press is acting irresponsibly. Wasn't this the thinking of the New Order? That the press should not report on certain types of incidents because the truth might lead to social unrest or hinder development?

The problem with this way of thinking is that it makes journalists afraid to do their job. Social problems remain hidden, and journalists practice self-censorship. And the public is left in the dark.

Do we as citizens really think that the truth is more dangerous than falsehood? As citizens of democracies, we need to support journalists who are doing their job. We need to speak out, and to remind one another that it is the responsibility of journalists to seek out the truth and to report on it. Journalists should be held accountable for what actually appears on the page -- not for the conclusions that exist only in the minds of their readers.

What we as citizens can ask of journalists is that they act honorably, do their jobs to the best of their ability, and work in compliance with the rules of their profession. It is the responsibility of journalists to report on the truth. If they are doing this, they are doing their job -- and we as citizens are the beneficiaries. The fact that the truth may sometimes lead to disagreements and even to political conflict is the greatest challenge as well as the greatest opportunity of living in a democracy.

In the words of James Madison, author of the American Bill of Rights, "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

The article was presented at a one-day seminar on Indonesia Toward True Democracy: The opportunity and Challenges sponsored by the Jakarta-based Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah in cooperation with U.S. Embassy on June 17 in Jakarta. The Indonesian version of the article was published in Koran Tempo daily.