Tue, 15 Jan 2002

Local media: Good news, bad news

Tessa Piper, Media Consultant, Jakarta

In his article entitled Press freedom no guarantee of professionalism (The Jakarta Post, Jan. 8) Harry Bhaskara points to some of the key challenges facing the media today. At the same time, Bhaskara is critical of the media's abuse of its new found freedoms and its lack of professionalism.

I would be the first to agree with him that there are numerous examples to be found of the media's failure to live up to appropriate standards of professionalism, and there is no question that much work needs to be done to raise those standards. I take issue, however, with Bhaskara's view that the media's performance during 2001 was disappointing. It seems to me that these days there is too much tendency to focus on the negative aspects of the Indonesian media, and to ignore or deny the many positive developments that have occurred in the industry since the fall of the New Order government.

Just four years ago, for example, who would have been able to envisage the media openly raising issues of corruption and malfeasance at the highest political levels, and conducting in- depth investigations in order to unearth the truth? Abuse of power, impunity, human rights violations, all are now topics of everyday discussion in the media. The taboo of reporting on religious, racial, and other forms of conflict has also been well and truly smashed, resulting in the public finally being able to better understand the complexities of the violence prevalent in various parts of the country.

True, these reports have not to put an end to corruption, or solved any of the myriad conflicts around Indonesia. But what media in the world could or should aspire to achieve such things? The role of the media is to disseminate the facts. Let's not fall into the trap here of blaming the messenger, when in fact it is public policy and the legal system that should be addressing the root causes of these problems.

The tendency to do so points to a misconception about the role of the media prevalent among many government officials and members of the public. Just as the media itself is having to adjust to a sea change in the way it is now allowed to operate, so too do citizens need to understand the proper role of the media in a democracy. The media should not be allowed to act irresponsibly, but it is for the legal system to deal with recalcitrant media, not the government and certainly not mob rule.

Meanwhile, there is still a great deal that needs to be done to assist the Indonesian media to mature into an industry that can fulfill its role as the fourth estate and a watchdog on government. Support is required not only in the form of programs designed to make a speedy and visible impact, but also for longer term initiatives, such as the establishment of strong indigenous educational institutions that can ensure sustained media development long into the future.

Worryingly, though, there is talk in development circles of phasing out support for programs designed to help professionalize the media. The rationale for this apparently includes that such support has already been going on for some time and is therefore no longer needed (clearly incorrect), or else that the media has failed to demonstrate meaningful change for the better despite such assistance in the past. Certainly, we can all throw up our hands when hearing of tendentious and at times downright inflammatory reporting, and despair of the complete lack of adherence to basic ethical norms by certain media seemingly guided purely by business interests with no concern for accuracy and accountability. But isn't that precisely why more work needs to be done to help the media improve its performance?

It is unrealistic to expect the media to throw off the shackles of over three decades of restrictions and censorship overnight. No one anticipated that it would be possible to overhaul the country's deeply flawed legal system in just a few years, and there appears to be no indication that the significant international financial and technical support for legal reform initiatives is waning. So why is it that the media is expected to be able to evolve effortlessly from an industry constantly battling ever shifting limits on freedom of expression in the Soeharto era, into a fully developed professional institution, in the space of just a few years?

What we are witnessing now are the growing pains of a profession that is having to grapple with the radical changes it is experiencing in its working environment. The professionalization of the media is part of the process of transition to democracy that requires time, determination and concrete support. In that process there will likely be a mix of progress, stagnation, and backsliding. This is true not only in the media, but is also something we witness every day in both the political and legal arenas.

Let's not forget the situation from which the Indonesian media has emerged in these few short years, nor minimize the very real challenges that it is confronting to metamorphose into the kind of media that can be hoped for and expected in a democracy. History can't be erased, and changes cannot be achieved overnight. It will require considerable time and effort for the Indonesian media to take full advantage of the changed political environment, just as the government and citizens are having to make fundamental changes to their own thinking and ways of operating.

The challenges are many, and there will likely be many more examples of irresponsible and/or ignorant media reporting before we reach that point. But, next time we rush to criticize yet another example of poor media professionalism, let's remember just how far the media has come in this short space of time since Soeharto's fall, and be grateful for the progress -- albeit at times frustratingly slow -- already made.