Wed, 14 Jun 2000

Rule of law through free press

By Todung Mulya Lubis

JAKARTA (JP): Recently the Jawa Pos daily was occupied by members of the Banser civilian guards organization, and since then much criticism has been raised regarding the lack of professionalism in the press.

Banser had protested a mistake in the daily's reporting of alleged corruption involving leaders of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the affiliate of Banser.

Given the frequent misleading reporting, allegations of lack of professionalism are not entirely wrong. Fears of the tyranny of the press have strong grounds; amid the thousands of dailies, tabloids and magazines it is difficult to have a code of ethics for reporting that is applicable and binding to all.

Such a code of ethics is generally found among established media organizations, while many new publications are not too concerned with quality. This is even more true in the current contest of sensational reporting.

Reporters seem to place priority on their egos, while accuracy and balance, and the possibility that the story may be misleading, is less important.

So far there is no "fit and proper test" for reporters, so hoodlums and brokers might also find their way into the press. Sources have often displayed disappointment, citing wrong and confusing quotes.

A recent survey by the prominent Kompas daily indicated that 54.3 percent of respondents were of the view that the press played a role in making things worse; while only 37.1 percent thought the press had a positive role.

The survey at least suggests the feeling of readers regarding press freedom in the country.

It cannot be denied that the press here needs to increase its work ethos, discipline and code of ethics. Eventually, it will be up to the press to formulate rules of reporting so that the definition of accuracy, balanced reporting and covering both sides becomes crystal clear.

The press should avoid feeling spoilt and that they have the "license to publish everything". It must be ready to accept criticism and lawsuits because it is through the legal process that the limits of press freedom will be formed.

An example is the Soeharto vs Time magazine case. The court said coverage on public interest issues such as the abuse of power and eradication of corruption, collusion and nepotism is neither an insult or defamation, and is not against the law as long as it follows all journalistic standards, such as checking and rechecking.

The panel of judges also said a public figure is an open book, and therefore should accept being a subject of criticism and being made fun of.

The cost of being a public figure is the loss of part of his or her privacy. The decision in the above case brings to mind the famous cases involving the press in the United States such as New York Times vs Sullivan (1964), Curtis Publishing Co vs Butts and The Associated Press vs Walker (1967).

The judges in the above cases were also of the view that "public figures," similar to "public officials", had a significant role in public life, and therefore they should be open to both criticism and ridicule.

Nevertheless the plaintiffs could still demand compensation in what was referred to as "extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers" -- as judge Harlan was quoted as saying in the Curtis Publishing Co vs Butts case.

We are still in a transition period and the public should understand that the occasionally exaggerating press is part of the dynamics after a 30-year period of terror through censorship and press closures.

People should not get angry so quickly. Increasing competition among the press will in time lead the public to choose quality media that they can trust.

In this context the "raid" against Jawa Pos was a mistake which could bring us back to the days of press censorship. Imagine a nervous press censoring itself in this time of reform. What would follow would be a growing ignorance among the public and, worse still, we would find ourselves awash in pamphlets and flyers with questionable contents. Politics of divide and conquer could flourish even more.

Democracy and the rule of law can only be realized through a free press. In the long term, poverty and hunger could be avoided if a free press were guaranteed, as the public would obtain more comprehensive and accurate information.

A review of history would show, as in the words of Nobel prize laureate Amartya Sen, that "no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press". A free press might not be the only factor, yet much of his words ring true.

The writer was the lawyer for defendants in the Soeharto vs Times case which decided in favor of defendants last Tuesday.