Fri, 23 Feb 2001

Wanted: Neutral local political observers

By Santi W.E. Soekanto

JAKARTA (JP): Pity the journalists whose commitment to objective reporting compels them to not only "cover both sides" at all costs, but to also seek the comments of "neutral" political observers to help the public make sense of the situation.

This is because a reporter today needs to think long and hard before she or he can come up with even one name of a so-called objective observer. When one reporter did remember a respected political analyst and tried to contact him, the scholar was away for a teaching program in Wisconsin, U.S., and his secretary did not have his email address.

Many of the observers whose names and pictures appear so frequently in the media have recently displayed a leaning toward one of the sides involved in the current political battle between President Abdurrahman Wahid and legislators led by Amien Rais and Akbar Tandjung.

Their assessment of the situation would therefore be less than objective.

Actually, Indonesian journalists have always found it difficult to obtain objective analysis from our political observers -- at least for the past 10 years.

During the last years of the New Order regime, when Soeharto became frantic at his weakening grip over Indonesia and responded by becoming even more repressive, being objective could mean jail for political commentators.

Speaking the truth, for journalists and analysts alike, meant being courageous fools during those times. Printing any words that criticized government policies meant telephone threats -- sometimes even physical attacks -- by some lowly ranked military officers carrying out orders from their top brass.

Hence the giddy rush that would come after having done something right in the face of danger, when one discovered a political scientist who dared to speak his mind.

"He's good, he's brave, we need more interviews with him," said an editor of an analyst at the University of Indonesia, happy because he could borrow the analyst's words to trash Soeharto's government and earn the reputation of being the editor of a "courageous newspaper" in the process.

"Ooh, our analyst just received a telephone threat because of what he said in our newspaper. We will soon be getting some of that too," the editor raved.

This analyst soon became popular and won the respect of readers and journalists alike. Soon after the reform movement toppled Soeharto, however, the analyst gradually lost his impartial assessment of the political situation and recently appeared to have been dragged to one of the many sides in the current, confusing polarization of political forces.

"Let's not interview him, he's been co-opted by Gus Dur already," said the editor.

Maybe the analyst is not really to blame. Maybe he is practicing what international scholars like Edward Said have advocated, namely taking sides with the weak and the downtrodden. The analyst did that during Soeharto's regime; he is probably thinking that in the current political conflict, President Abdurrahman Wahid is the weaker party.

But still, spare a thought for journalists. They may find it easier to get mere soundbites from just about anybody attached to some scholarly institutions, but are having a much harder time trying to obtain impartial comments on the situation.

When the International Monetary Fund (IMF) once again slapped Abdurrahman's wrists and canceled the disbursement of its US$ 400 million loan installment, editors were hard up for comments.

"We used to be able to call up Andi Mallarangeng, Sjahrir, Didik Rachbini, Riswandha Imawan or Dewi Fortuna Anwar for analysis of the latest carrot-and-stick ploys by the IMF," an editor complained, "but we can't now. Not after they signed their petition for Gus Dur's resignation; they would just use this opportunity to slap Gus Dur even harder."

Editors and journalists, of course, can still make the best of the situation by inviting the comments of scholars from all camps, and let the readers judge for themselves.

The writer is a journalist of The Jakarta Post.