Wed, 09 Jul 2003

Information vs. privacy

Call it trivial, given the gravity of the problems in which the nation is currently embroiled. Still, the arguments that have broken out in the past several months between the media and a growing number of movie and television stars -- as well as other artistes and entertainers, politicians and public figures, collectively known by the public as celebrities -- illustrates the complexity of the problems that accompany the transition from traditional to modern society.

As was reported recently, the latest spat between the media and a celebrity involved presenter Sarah Sechan, who felt that her privacy had been invaded when the media covered her wedding, which she had announced a private affair. Nevertheless, she complained, reporters converged on the scene on that auspicious day and practically forced her to give an interview.

Last week, a number of TV stars and presenters, including well-known sinetron (local soap opera) stars Ayu Azhari and Dessy Ratnasari, and comedian Deddy Mi'ing Gumelar, in a hearing at the House of Representatives, told members about the media's ignorance of their right to privacy.

Before House Commission I on media affairs, Mi'ing complained that his relationship with the media was good "until the so- called Reform era." Investigative reports by a number of media, he said, constituted an attack on his personal life and that of his family, and his personal rights had been disregarded. "Apparently, I also no longer have the right to refuse to be interviewed," he said.

Among Dessy's complaints of media inaccuracy put forward to the legislators, was a story on a rumored recent divorce and another about her being an adopted child. Neither had been brought to her for confirmation, she said.

Apparently, the celebrities felt that the time had come for the legislature to start drafting a law to protect an individual's privacy.

Of course, public figures, which celebrities are by definition, are fully entitled to the right to keep their private lives, private. The problem is where to draw the line between the two where public figures are involved.

In Sarah Sechan's case, for example, was the media guilty of intruding upon the presenter's right to privacy? Or was it merely doing its job of informing the public of the conduct and activities of people who, after all, in a sense belong to the public?

This might have been a simple question to answer were it not for the fact that we are not living in some "modern" Western country with an ingrained individualistic cultural character -- although even there, this characteristic varies from country to country and society to society.

Of course, each society in the world has its own standards for determining which actions and behavior of an individual can -- or even must -- be made public knowledge. In Indonesia, where the traditional mores of the old preindustrial communities still hold sway, and even the universal principles of human rights are often still seen as a "Western value" -- especially in rural areas -- the right to individual privacy can be very limited indeed.

Still, Indonesians should acknowledge the reality that rapid changes, sometimes quite profound, are taking place in their society. Values and conventions that were accepted as customary a few decades or even years ago are rapidly being discarded or disregarded, especially by the younger generation.

Obviously, it will not solve the problem to simply turn a blind eye toward this trend. Unless the frictions -- both real and potential -- caused by these changes are anticipated with wisdom and understanding, this nation will soon find itself burdened by yet another problem it cannot ignore.