Tue, 09 Mar 1999

Yunus defends press freedom

JAKARTA (JP): Minister of Information Muhammad Yunus delivered on Monday a strong defense for freedom of the press to critical legislators, saying he would prefer "newspapers without a government" to "a government without newspapers."

In a hearing with the House of Representatives Commission I for political affairs and information, some of whose members have lashed out at the press for allegedly abusing its newfound freedom, Yunus said that rather than criticizing the press, the government and the public should instead work for effective law enforcement.

He stated that it was poor law enforcement rather than a free press that would cause the nation to disintegrate.

At one of point during the lively hearing, marked by interruptions by legislators over his views on the press, Yunus quoted U.S. president Thomas Jefferson's declaration, "... were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate even a moment to prefer the latter".

Yunus delivered the quote to address concerns raised by several members of the commission that there was an impression that the media had become too liberal in their reports.

"The press has not yet overstepped its boundaries," Yunus asserted.

The courts

To support this assertion, Yunus, an active Army lieutenant general, said that not many cases of press violations had come before the courts.

Rather than restricting press freedom, Yunus said it would be better for the House to change the country's Criminal Code to cover abuses by the press not yet covered by the law.

He also called on journalist associations to formulate their own codes of ethics and conducts. There are so far 18 journalist associations in Indonesia, Yunus informed the House.

Responding to a written question about whether the government considered it important "to establish a new institution" to uphold the implementation of a code of ethics for journalists, Yunus said, "The government supports the idea."

Later in the hearing, he added, "Let them (journalists) regulate themselves... let's just see if the press violates the Criminal Code... it is the Criminal Code which should serve as our last bastion to protect the nation's pillars."

Yunus said he was worried that government officials would retard the development of the country's press if they introduced too many regulations.

Yunus cited as an example that during the New Order there were only 289 press publication licenses issued, while during the last 10 months the information ministry had issued a total of 731 licenses, known as SIUPP.

However, Yunus told the House that the government would regulate the press and other broadcast media through a new law.

The mass media bill is now being studied by the State Secretariat and soon would be submitted to the House for deliberation, he said.

Earlier in the hearing, Bachtiar Aly of the dominant Golkar faction observed there had been reports in the press which carried "bombastic" headlines but reported nothing of substance.

Another Golkar legislator, Ariyanti Ari Sigit, and a legislator from the United Development Party, Hussein Umar, cited cases of pornography spreading through the media. These cases include pirated laser discs and video compact discs and locally made films specializing in adult themes.

While promising to address the matter through the cooperation of the public, Yunus said the spread of pornography occurred partly because "the market still wants it".

"The mass media is an industry," he said.

Yunus once served in East Timor, where he was accused of issuing an order to his men to shoot foreign journalists. (aan)