Tue, 14 May 2002

Indonesian press: Walking a tightrope

Arya Gunawan, Media Analyst, Jakarta

Why is press freedom always considered by some as a pre- requisite for a democratic nation? According to a UK-based media expert, Richard Keeble, the freedom of the press is essential as it creates a bridge between the rulers and the ruled. The press provides important information on political, social and financial issues, so that the members of the public can use the information to make the decisions that they think are right for their everyday lives, including at the time of general elections (Richard Keeble, Ethics for Journalists, 2001). So if the press is suppressed, the impact is obvious: the public will not have access to information with the result that they will be blind to the realities around them.

There are many examples in support of this argument. One of them is what happened in Indonesia under the New Order. The press during that period was a suppressed press, so that many important stories were not allowed to surface. Many facts were swept under the carpet, or were orchestrated or manipulated. The impact was disastrous: the nation and the country is now on the brink of collapse in almost all areas of life. This has happened because we as the nation were too late in realizing that the economic growth and political stability of which we were once so proud was only a mirage.

The importance of press freedom must have been to the forefront of the collective Indonesian press mind, especially given the new difficulties that are being faced by the Indonesian press nowadays. On one hand, the press has been enjoying the freedom that it had been dreaming of for so long under the New Order, but on the other hand the press has to exercise its freedom with more awareness of the importance of responsibility. It should also be noted that the responsibilities of the press are becoming more important and relevant as there have been complaints made by some elements in society who think that the Indonesian press has sometimes been exercising its freedom in a manner that goes beyond what is acceptable to the public in general.

After then president Soeharto's resignation in May 1998, the Indonesian press became much more open, and this was then strengthened through the enactment of the new press law in September 1999. One of the consequences brought about by the sudden coming into existence of a free press in Indonesia was the birth of many new publications, like the popping up of mushrooms in the rainy season. Data from the Indonesian Press Council shows that in 1999 there were 1,690 publications all across the country.The latest data shows that there are only 591 publications left to date.

Where did all these new publications recruit their professional staff members such as field reporters, senior editors, managing editors and editors-in-chief? No comprehensive research is available yet to answer this question. But it is thought that most of them hired less professional, or even unprofessional, staff. It is thus only to be expected that this core problem will generate various problems in the press itself related to the standard of professionalism of journalists, ethical issues (from sensational news to cheap gossip and pornography), as well as problems concerning journalists' welfare that will in turn create some negative excesses such as "envelope journalism" (journalists who receive money or gifts from their news sources).

All of the above-mentioned internal problems of the Indonesian press will quickly be jumped upon by parties outside the press as an excuse for criticizing freedom of the press. This has happened already. There have been accusations from some members of society that the Indonesian press has crossed lines that should not be crossed, been sensational, and also been judgmental ("trial by the press"). There have also been voices demanding the revision of the 1999 press law because it is considered too liberal.

The Indonesian press society should carefully take into account all these complaints. Some of them are reasonable, especially those concerning ethics and professionalism. The freedom that has been enjoyed by the press over the last four years should not be exercised only for the sake of freedom itself, because if that were the case then the freedom would bring about many detrimental consequences for society at large.

Freedom can only be exercised properly and appropriately if it is coupled with another important element: responsibility. In a time of transition like Indonesia is experiencing, what is needed is a responsible and professional press that can assist in providing guidance and direction for the nation as it attempts to find its feet again. Therefore, the complaints should be seen as an invitation to the press to introspect, and to follow this up with concrete action to remedy all remaining weaknesses.

However, if the complaints are just used as an excuse by those in power to put new and more far-reaching limitations on the press because they feel uncomfortable, see themselves being put on the hot seat, and fear that the free press could undermine their power, then the press should be on the alert. Walter Lippman, the social thinker from America once stated that there is no higher rule in journalism other than to inform the truth and to humiliate those who are wrong.

The Indonesian press nowadays is walking on a tightrope: on the one hand the press needs to safeguard the freedom it has won after a long struggle, but on the other hand it needs to exercise its freedom carefully in order to avoid any potential backlash. There is one key word that will guarantee a balance: responsibility. And not new limitations on the press, since these could actually be the products of authoritarianism lurking behind the mask of the need to uphold ethics.

And for Indonesia in particular, new limitations would only send the country back into the dark tunnel again, a tunnel in which the public are denied information as was the case for more than three decades under the New Order. A period of darkness that has saddled the nation with almost insurmountable burdens.