Fri, 25 Apr 2003

Standing on the frontline for press freedom

Fikri Jufri, Senior journalist, Member, Board of Directors of PT Bina Media Tenggara

As The Jakarta Post celebrates its 20th anniversary today, Indonesia is no longer gripped by the euphoria of reform that fired up reformists' emotions to topple Soeharto from his 32-year rule. Now that their hopes have been shattered, many reformists have had to suffer despondency and bitterness in a state of helplessness.

Soeharto is no longer in power, but his New Order regime and its followers are still powerful and armed with a myriad of wealth. Worse still, one of the regime's victims - the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) - has announced that it will work closely with the regime's Golkar Party in the general election next year, despite the fact that Golkar was the oppressor of PDI-P.

Far from bringing dishonest bankers to justice, the authorities and law enforcement agencies even let the culprits travel abroad.

Akbar Tandjung, convicted for embezzling non-budgetary funds from the State Logistics Agency, still appears shamelessly at many state occasions and firmly holds onto the chairmanship of the House of Representatives (DPR).

Other corruption cases in the DPR have gone unsolved. M.A. Rachman, who failed to report his ownership of a Rp 1.8 billion mansion to the wealth audit commission, a violation of the law, remains attorney general.

Meanwhile, hardliners in the Indonesian military have maneuvered themselves into a powerful political position after they were sidelined in the early years of Indonesia's reform. Likewise, the Indonesian police, who were highly expected to help establish civilian governance, have become more and more militaristic.

In some areas where conflicts pervade, like Papua and Aceh, military presence has been expanded by readopting the so-called "crush" and wipe out" principle.

As the invisible hands of evil have destroyed the foundation of law enforcement and the judicial system, it is the Indonesian press - along with university students who take to the streets to protest social injustice - that can still play a role in building the pillars of democracy.

They continue to declare war against corruption, collusion and nepotism (KKN), arbitrary deprivation of people's rights and legal redress, violence and violations of human rights as well as thuggery, irregularities and human exploitation. It is true that there are some news reporters who can be bribed, but it is also true to say that there are more - in fact many more -- journalists who detest and reject this practice of bribery, known locally as the "envelope culture".

Sad to say that at a time when the Indonesian press is making an effort to keep to the reform track, the Tempo newsweekly was attacked by around 200 people allegedly hired by Tomy Winata, the tycoon of a large business enterprise. Chanting insults and beating Tempo journalists, the attackers said that they objected to a report about the devastating fire at Tanah Abang Market in Central Jakarta, and the planned renovation of what is believed to be the biggest textile and garment trading center in Southeast Asia.

Although the report was balanced and covers both sides, Tomy has chosen to take the case to court. In fact, he could have settled the dispute by exercising his rights for clarification, which is in line with prevailing laws, rather than filing a lawsuit.

At the time of writing, two Tempo journalists, Bambang Harymurti and Ahmad Taufik, the victims of the brutal beating and insults, had been named defendants while assailant David, alias A Miauw, who was earlier detained in police custody, now has nothing more to deal with than house arrest.

Such attacks on media offices and journalists are nothing unusual in this so-called reform era. The office of the Batam Pos was ransacked by an unknown group, a photojournalist of the Pikiran Rakyat daily in Bandung was mobbed and a cameraman of TV7 was beaten by a group of security and public order officials.

According to data from the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), there have been at least 65 cases of harassment against members of the local press over the past year.

In August 2002, Humanika, a humanitarian institution in Jakarta, was attacked by a mob allegedly to be the henchmen of Tomy Winata, who has denied the allegation. It happened after Humanika's circulars contained an article titled Tomy Winata Gembong Judi dan Ekstasi (Tomy Winata, the Gambling Kingpin and Drug Lord). Also in July last year, 20 people claiming to be members of a local student press forum staged a protest at the office of Forum Keadilan news magazine because of its coverage of Tommy Winata's alleged involvement in drug trafficking in its July 14, 2002 edition.

Do all those incidents concern The Jakarta Post? Obviously they do, considering that the Post, along with a number of other media, is on the frontline with Tempo in defending the rights of the people and democracy. This explains why the Post was the first among the local media to defend Tempo when it was attacked by Tomy Winata's henchmen. The Post ran the story as headline news and denounced the practice of thuggery in solving any issue arising from media coverage.

Since it began publication 20 years ago, the Post continually championed democracy and the people's rights. This policy has, in its own right, become its selling point because in carrying out its mission, the Post has had the advantage over other local newspapers in that it is an English-language daily.

It so happened that Ali Moertopo, then information minister and one of Soeharto's most trusted aides, did not object to the publication of a third English-language newspaper in Indonesia in 1983. He even helped a great deal in smoothing the process of the issuance of the Post's publication permit and license.

Later, when Harmoko became information minister, the ministry was not wary of the Post's critical reports of the New Order government and establishment. Seemingly the ministry's reading teams were reluctant to scrutinize reports in the Post as they would be kept busy repeatedly looking up words in the dictionary to understand the wide coverage of the newspaper.

Now that the Indonesian press has earned its freedom, many local media, aside from the Post, also publish critical news reports, thereby bringing about the possibility that a number of English-language readers will turn to Indonesian-language publications. Another possibility is that those who used to buy the Post from the newsstand will no longer miss its insight by not reading it.

It stands to reason that the Post has to map out a new strategy, ideally and commercially, to cope with the problems of its depleting market share. While maintaining its position as the champion of democracy, the Post cannot help but become wiser and keener in its news selection and presentation of articles that are of interest to both foreign and local readers, comprising intellectuals and university students.

Feature articles on the variety of unique Indonesian cultures have to be written in profound and colorful ways so as to instill something lasting in the mind of its readers, regardless of whether they are locals or expatriates.

Printing biting but constructive criticism on vested interests is not easy. It is true that official warnings and threats (like what was done by the now defunct ministry of information) are no longer issued. But the threats still loom large given the fact that not only the old political elite has joined up with the new one, as in the case of the Golkar Party and the PDI-P, but also their collaboration with interest groups from the military as well as thugs.

Given what happened to Tempo and the other media, I suspect that the vested interests, including those often criticized by the media, are continually building up their arsenals.

All said, I believe that violence against the local press will continue to happen, singly or simultaneously, covertly or openly. Hence the Indonesian press should consolidate to face all the challenges, not only among fellow journalists, but also with other supporters of democracy. And I am fully convinced that the Post will continue to stand on the frontline.