Fri, 25 Apr 2003

Taking time and effort to shape our identity

The toughest problem a new publication faces is searching for a personality, a distinct identity that gradually will be accepted by its readers as its trademark. I faced this problem during those first years after out launch on April 25, 1983.

Given the constrained role of English newspapers in non- English speaking societies, an equally tough problem was to establish The Jakarta Post as a paper rooted in the Indonesian social political environment. It must not be a paper produced exclusively for expats.

Of course, it was crucial that the Post developed its editorial infrastructure. The managing editor, Amir Daud, was the right person to tackle this technical matter.

We also were fortunate that during that critical initial period we were assisted by a hard-working old hand from Australia, Lionel Northover, who had worked for many years at the West Australian daily.

He was a master in the art of newspaper layout and was strict concerning matters such as story length and photo size, down to the art of keeping headlines level. He also put great emphasis on maintaining a strict working discipline so that, gradually, The Jakarta Post managed to stay within its deadlines, overcoming the pressures and constraints of that initial period.

Bill Tarrant, a freelance writer, joined us as a "language consultant", but actually he took care of the front page.

Then, when the newspaper finally began to find its form and routine and the working discipline was beginning to be established, Amir Daud decided to leave.

On Dec. 13, 1985, a new Indonesian business daily, Bisnis Indonesia, was published and Amir was offered the chief editorship. Understandably, it was an offer that was hard to refuse.

I must admit that at that juncture, The Jakarta Post found itself in a difficult situation. Amir was one of the few Indonesian journalists who mastered the technical competence of newspaper publishing, and a tough disciplinarian as far as newswriting was concerned.

I gathered a number of colleagues and explained the situation to them. We all agreed that the Post should continue to publish and that we should intensify our efforts to produce an attractive newspaper.

Gradually, I also noticed that a new atmosphere was beginning to emerge in the editorial room. There was a greater exchange of views and the working elan was improving. As an example of this improved team spirit, I always mention what happened when the U.S. space shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986.

Our deadline for the last news item to be accepted before the newspaper was sent to the printing room was 11 p.m. Because our newspaper was printed at the Kompas/Gramedia printing plant and circulated through their distribution network, the deadline had to be strictly observed.

Our offices are located just across the street from the plant, and at 11 p.m. the few editors that were still around, including myself, were already busy in the correction and layout room at the Kompas printing plant.

The only person who was left in the Post's editorial room was our office boy, Suyoto. At that time there were no computers in our editorial room and e-mails were unheard of. We had to rely on telex printers that delivered the news from wire agencies throughout the world.

But Suyoto already knew enough about the mysterious intricacies of news telex machines to realize that their bells would ring whenever something important or urgent took place.

Approaching midnight, the bells rang. Suyoto glanced at the machine and his English was adequate enough to realize that something serious had taken place. He tore the sheet from the machine and rushed with it to the layout room, saying, "Pak, something has exploded."

We managed to insert a brief bulletin about the Challenger explosion on the front page, confident that this time the breach of our deadline would not scupper the printing process. After all, we had alerted our colleagues at Kompas about the explosion. I believe that since that time a sense of mutual appreciation has grown between those of us working for a small and struggling English-language newspaper and our colleagues at the mass- circulation Kompas daily.

After some years, the Post developed a distinct editorial position regarding issues of political development, environmental problems, Southeast Asian regional conflicts and the Cambodian problem in particular, as well as the then ongoing competition for global supremacy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Even within the limited leeway that was available, the Post managed to editorially advocate greater freedom of expression in order to enhance political development in this country.

An excerpt from our editorial of April 23, 1988, may serve as an example. Dr. Alwi Dahlan, a specialist in public communication who studied under the noted Prof. Wilbur Schram, commented that the Indonesian media failed to provide thorough coverage of the recently held Constituent Assembly. Alwi Dahlan happens to be an old friend of mine and the Post editorial responded as follows:

"... it seems to us that Dr. Dahlan's remarks, although expressed out of sincere concern, need to be placed in a wider framework of discussion ... In a more fundamental sense, we are raising the question of whether the prevailing Indonesian political culture which puts so much stress on consensus seeking and on the need to maintain social and political stability does indeed provide room for in-depth analysis and open discussion of what the proponents of that consensus principle may well perceive as destabilizing".

As far as I remember, however, one of the most traumatic events occurred in early June 1988, when then State Minister of Research and Technology B.J.Habibie threatened to close down the newspaper. In the Post edition of Monday, May 30, 1988, we carried an item titled Saudi Arabia cancels orders for CN-235 aircraft from RI.

It was written by our own reporter who, together with other journalists, had been invited to Habibie's aircraft plant in Bandung. The news source was reliable and the reporter on the beat, Rikza Abdullah, was a dependable person.

Since the following day was a Hindu holiday, I was called by minister Habibie to his office on June 1. The encounter took place in a conference room in which the table was covered with airplane models. In front of members of his staff, he angrily rebuked me. I listened patiently, then offered to print his counter-statement in the newspaper, which we did.

However, he also told me that he had reported the incident to President Soeharto and the latter's comment was that action should be taken against the Post because it was not supporting national development. Knowing Habibie's closeness to the president, I did not take the threat lightly. A number of Cabinet ministers and senior military officers were contacted by the Post to explain the situation, and the threat was not carried out.

Another important milestone in the Post's history occurred in early 1990. Kompas was building a new office tower and the editorial staff had to move to a temporary shack still within the newspaper's compound. After the tower's completion, that shack was vacated by Kompas.

I proposed to the board of directors that the Post's editorial staff move to that shack while the old renovated warehouse across the street that had served as our editorial offices for years be torn down and rebuilt. Raymond Toruan, the Post's general manager who was also connected to the Kompas managing team, applied effective diplomacy by persuading the Kompas pension fund to finance the construction of the new building. When I left the Post in mid 1991 for a diplomatic assignment in Australia, the new building was still under construction.

Fortunately I happened to be in Jakarta for consultations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when the new office building of The Jakarta Post was inaugurated on April 15, 1992. The modern two-story building was constructed on the former site. Officially the building is owned by the Kompas/Gramedia pension fund, which is why Jakob Oetama, the publisher of the Kompas daily and CEO of the Gramedia Group, presided over the festive ceremony.

As I wandered about the modern editorial room equipped with desk-top computers, I could not help but remember the Post's former office - a renovated warehouse at the same location - which buzzed with the clatter of typewriters.

Looking back, what do I value most being associated with the Post since its inception? I guess it is the opportunity to work together with people whom I did know quite well beforehand, accepting each other's limitations while appreciating our respective standpoints, jointly overcoming various problems in order to realize the original idea of publishing a newspaper that would be relevant to Indonesia's future.

And in a very personal sense, I was indeed grateful that in carrying out the responsibilities of the first chief editor of the Post, I obtained a valuable chance, as Dag Hammarskjold, the second United Nations secretary-general, wrote in his diary (Markings, 1964)," to remain a recipient - and be grateful. Grateful of being allowed to listen, to observe, to understand".

Of course, there have been many events in this vast-changing Indonesia that I could not fully understand. But, certainly, the experience of listening and observing has enriched my personal life.