Fri, 25 Apr 2003

Surviving our own years of living dangerously

Susanto Pudjomartono, Chief Editor 1991-2001

It was August 1991, and the authoritarian regime of Soeharto was at the peak of its power. With the help of the military, he controlled the country with an iron fist that swiftly crushed any form of dissent. Politicians and activists who dared to oppose him were thrown into prison, many on trumped-up charges.

As the newly appointed editor in chief of The Jakarta Post, I had two options. The first was to follow an editorial policy that many media in Indonesia practiced: to subscribe to "survival journalism" by behaving in a "positive and constructive manner" to escape the government's wrath.

The second was to try to push for more freedom.

The first choice was safer, and the second naturally presented a much darker and dangerous path. Any newspapers that dared to take the latter strategy would have to be ready to be banned, or at least stamped as "opposition" or an "enemy of the state".

In all repressive regimes, there is always somebody up there who is holding a big stick and is ready to bludgeon those that dare to cross the line. During Soeharto's last 15 years in power, the henchman was none other than Soeharto's trusted and loyal lieutenant, information minister Harmoko.

By 1991, The Jakarta Post was a reputable newspaper, highly respected, financially sound and unquestionably the best among the three English newspapers in the country. From the very beginning, the Post was designed to be a quality paper of high standard.

As a former managing editor of the weekly newsmagazine Tempo, and a journalist since 1966, I believed that by joining hands with other pro-democracy media and institutions, the Post could play a more significant role in the building of democracy in Indonesia.

Therefore, it was heartening that the board of directors (and later on the board of commissioners) of the newspaper's publisher, PT Bina Media Tenggara, fully supported the idea that the Post should be reinvented into a bolder, more critical, independent and finely tuned paper.

We shared the view that the collapse of the Cold War had unleashed a global movement of change and that it was time was to bring democracy to Indonesia. We came to the conclusion that a docile newspaper would never able to shift a heap of rocks, but a concerted effort by an enlightened mass could move a mountain.

In line with this view, we believed that the Post should help to enlighten and empower the people by providing news and views supportive to the democratization process.

We also believed that, as an English newspaper in a non- English speaking community, the Post enjoyed advantages and disadvantages.

We knew that the Post would never be able to reach a mass circulation of, say, hundreds of thousands, as the number of English-speaking readers here is limited.

But English is a much more straightforward and down to earth medium than Bahasa Indonesia. Readers did not need to read between the lines, like they did with the Indonesian publications.

The leadership of the Post also decided that the Post should stop relying too heavily on expatriate readers (totaling about 65 percent in 1991) and instead expand the number of the Indonesian readers. In short, we wanted to reinvent the Post into a critical and influential newspaper, though small in circulation but reaching the decision-makers, the cream of society.

The Jakarta Post, with the full support of its staff, started to reinvent itself. On many occasions we learned the limits of freedom through trial and error. In 1994, when Tempo, Editor and Detik were banned, most media were afraid to report the ensuing demonstrations protesting the government's action.

I was repeatedly summoned to the Ministry of Information, including when the Post was the only paper to run a report on the demonstrations with an accompanying photo. It turned out that the government was enraged because the photo showed noted poet W.S. Rendra and labor activist Mochtar Pakpahan, and they feared the image would be construed as wide-ranging support in society for the demonstrations.

We decided to continue to publish similar pictures whenever there were demonstrations against the Tempo ban. We were still the only media that reported the events, but with no Rendra or Pakpahan nor any non-journalist figures on hand. There were no more summons, and we learned another lesson in how to push for more freedom.

When the situation was "tense" and when the Minister of Information repeatedly issued warnings to the media to "behave", we put our most sensitive items on page two. We soon heard that Post readers were wise to our strategy, and were turning to page two before they read the front page.

Of course, publishing a bold and critical newspaper exerted a toll. Practically all the Post journalists and employees lived in fear, wondering when the censorship ax would fall. Stress and depression were the order of the day then, but it was also invigorating to live so dangerously in the pursuit of a goal.

It was heartening when in 1996, after years of hard work, our annual readership survey revealed that readers acknowledged the Post not as a "Kompas in English translation", as previous surveys showed, but on its own merits. At last the Post was recognized and accepted as a real independent newspaper.

It was also a day of celebration on April 25, 1997, the 14th anniversary of The Jakarta Post, when the paper's paid circulation reached a record high of 50,000 copies. By then, we had also reached our goal in changing the readership composition: the ratio of our Indonesian readers was 65 percent compared to 35 percent expatriates.

In term of quality journalism, the Post takes pride in the biggest scoop in Indonesian press history as the only newspaper that broke the news of Soeharto's impending resignation on the morning of May 21, 1998.

His long-awaited departure ushered in the era of reformasi, and at last the Indonesian press gained its hard-fought freedom. As we have found out, freedom also brings new challenges, but that is another story.

Regimes may change, but there is always somebody up there in the corridors of power, or in the society, who hates freedom of the press. And some of them also carry a big stick and will not hesitate to use it against the media and journalists. We have learned a good, valuable and lasting lesson: Freedom must be fought for and defended.