By Damian McIver (JPP 2008)
University of Tasmania
Freedom at the Cross-Road: Indonesian Media since Soeharto
Jakarta (ANTARA News) February 8, 2008- At any given time in Jakarta, wherever you find a traffic jam, you can find the “tukang koran” – the men who have effectively become walking newsstands. They weave between the cars and the diesel fumes displaying their goods – respectable newspapers jostling with racy tabloids, religious iconography competing with the lurid promise of Playboy.
In this, the tenth year since Soeharto`s downfall and the restoration of democracy, the car-window distribution of the “tukang koran” offers a small but revealing glimpse into the character of the Indonesian media and the changes that have occurred within the last decade.
“Compared to ten years ago, it`s 100 per cent different. In terms of the law, in terms of treatment from the government and in terms of readers and viewers,” said Erich Thohir, owner of media corporation Mahaka Media and president director of its flagship Muslim newspaper, Republika.
Under the Soeharto regime, the media in Indonesia was tightly controlled. Stories abound of journalists being intimidated, jailed or even killed for contradicting the official line. Meanwhile, a climate of censorship and corruption flourished.
According to Endy Bayuni, editor of The Jakarta Post, Indonesia`s major English language newspaper, the ten years since “reformasi” have witnessed significant change.
“We have come a long way from the Soeharto regime. We were getting phone calls almost every other night from some general or some minister telling us that certain stories could not be published for security reasons. [Now] there are no more briefings by top military about things that we can or cannot publish,” he said.
Thohir agrees with those who proudly claim that Indonesia has the freest media in Southeast Asia. Indeed, in a region that remains partial to strict media controls, the diversity and relative open-ness of the Indonesian media is striking.
A 2007 report on the Indonesian media by Indonesian journalist Toeti Kakiailatu says there are now over 800 newspapers in circulation throughout Indonesia – nearly four times the number that existed under Soeharto. While estimates vary, growth in other forms of media has been equally impressive.
Speaking at a National Press Day function in Semarang, Central Java, recently, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono confirmed his government`s commitment to a free media.
“There should be no doubt that our choice will always be freedom of the press that is useful, responsible and adheres to good moral values,” he said.
This government rhetoric and the diversity of media that can be sampled at any train station, newsagent or traffic jam invite optimism about Indonesia`s political future. After all, a free press is widely held to be a cornerstone of democracy. However, like so much else in this nation of beguiling complexity, things are not always what they seem.
International press freedom watchdogs such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders continue to voice concerns about the state of press freedom in Indonesia. Freedom House`s annual report ranked Indonesia 114 out of 195 countries for press freedom.
Two journalists are currently serving prison time in Indonesia for defamation. This offence, dealt with by press councils or civil courts in most countries, can be legally treated as a criminal offence here.
Meanwhile the media power vacuum that emerged post-Soeharto has become an intense forum of competition between rival business interests. Some of these interests have proved somewhat hostile to the principles of a free and open media. According to Bayuni, threats and intimidation continue to be a fact of life for many journalists.
“What has changed now is that the enemies of press freedom are no longer coming from the government but they are coming from individual politicians, individual businessmen or powerful political groups who are not happy about the way they are being portrayed in the media,” he said.
The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) in Indonesia recorded 75 cases of violence against the press in 2007. This was an increase from 53 the previous year. As a witness and target of threats and intimidation, Bayuni described how entire media offices are sometimes targeted.
“Usually the attacks are conducted by a group of thugs – they come in busloads and they are organized by businessmen or political organizations that are not happy about the way they are portrayed in the media,” he said.
This situation is exacerbated by the lack of legal protection, said Bayuni.
“When we`re subjected to harassment or intimidation and we turn to the police, the police do nothing about it,” he said.
Struggle for Genuine Press Freedom
The conflict between the media and big business is not a problem unique to Indonesia. However, in a democracy that is still young and a culture that still retains many links with its authoritarian past, the struggle for genuine press freedom in Indonesia looms large over the country`s future direction.
Thohir, whose company is one of the major stake-holders within the Indonesian media, is aware of the threats that business interests can pose.
“It is a crucial time in Indonesia right now. Most of the media business in Indonesia, TV especially, is now owned by big businessmen, not by true journalists anymore. I cannot close my eyes. Many of my colleagues [in other organizations] right now try to use the media as a business,” he said.
In a further worrying development, there are those who claim that the government may still be imposing subtle controls on the media.
According to Andreas Harsono, an Indonesian journalist and academic, the government continues to have undue influence on public service broadcasters such as the television station TVRI.
“I`m afraid our politicians cannot hold their eagerness to control these public broadcast organizations. TVRI is a place for politicians to have airtime and positive coverage. I`m afraid the songs remain the same,” he said.
The Indonesian Press Council is currently drumming up support for its opposition to a proposed public information bill which, according to the council, would discourage journalists from disclosing information about public figures.
A recent report in The Jakarta Post said that articles within the bill would allow fines and jail time of up to five years to be imposed on anyone found guilty of spreading information classified as being outside the public domain.
The uncertainty surrounding what information is classified as outside the public domain has understandably made journalists in Indonesia quite nervous. The Indonesian Government is expecting to pass the bill in March this year.
Perhaps the most recent example of the convergent tensions between business interests, government interests and the principles of a free media can be found in the coverage of the death of former president Soeharto.
Soeharto`s deteriorating health was the subject of intense media interest in Indonesia with many outlets undertaking round-the-clock vigils at his hospital in Jakarta. Major television networks devoted entire schedules to covering his death and funeral. Soeharto was frequently referred to by the more familiar and reverential `Pak Harto` and much of the television footage contained nostalgic clips and gushing tributes for the former leader.
According to Eko Maryadi, spokesperson for AJI, this television coverage was a betrayal of the media`s responsibility to promote and foster public debate.
“SCTV and TransTV were allowing different voices – they featured former student activists who were victimized during the Soeharto time to see in a critical way the way Soeharto became president and things like that. But the rest of the coverage was crap,” he said.
Members of the Soeharto family remain major stake-holders within the Indonesian media and Maryadi believes that their power behind the scenes contributed to the way Soeharto`s death was covered.
“As an Indonesian I felt so ashamed? [that] the press could get so easily co-opted. But it shows once again that the family of Soeharto is still holding media power in Indonesia,” said Maryadi.
Maryadi is well qualified to speak about issues of press freedom given the fact that he spent three years in prison during the Soeharto era. Along with two other journalists he was imprisoned in 1995 for publishing an unauthorized newspaper.
Since that time he has campaigned for journalists` rights in Indonesia. He acknowledges that the task of developing a free and independent press in Indonesia is still in its infancy.
“I think we have to be honest to ourselves that our press freedom is very young,” he said.
Maryadi, Harsono, Bayuni and Thohir all agree that improving the standard of journalism education will enable journalists to defend their freedom more rigorously.
Harsono, who aside from his journalism, runs Pantau, a media training organization based in Jakarta, Banda Aceh and Ende, argues that progress in the ten years since Soeharto`s fall has been limited by the lack of a strong journalism culture.
“How much progress have we made. Not much, because the infrastructure for healthy, professional journalism is not there yet,” he said.
Ironically, it may well be that in the struggle for press freedom, journalists themselves may end up being their own worst enemies. The problem of ethics looms large over media debates in Indonesia with many now believing that the media has exploited the freedom it does have by sensationalising stories, slandering public figures and accepting bribes.
“Only 30 per cent of Indonesian media is healthy. The rest is unhealthy which means they don`t pay their journalists well, they allow journalists to take extra money, ask for bribes or sometimes become bandits or gangsters. They blackmail people,” said Maryadi.
It is something of a paradox that in an environment where many bemoan a lack of genuine freedom for the press, there are others who believe that the media now has too much freedom and too much power.
“Is the media too powerful? Yes, but in the future it will balance because of the law,” said Thohir who argues that tightening the laws on the press may be what is required to pull unethical elements into line.
Only ten years on from Soeharto`s fall and it is clear that there have been many positive developments within the Indonesian media. The diversity and choice available to the Indonesian public is testament to that.
However, if one thing is clear, it is that much more work is required for genuine freedom to be realised in the Indonesian media: freedom from violence and coercion, freedom to circulate ideas and opinions, and also perhaps, the responsibility of the media to use whatever freedoms they have in a responsible manner. While deep disagreements exist, few would argue with the sentiments expressed by Maryadi.
“It really needs hard work. So much work, so much thought, so much energy – but here we are, we have to fight for it. Once we struggled for press freedom, once we gained it – we have to defend it. We have to take responsibility for how this press freedom can benefit the people, not only journalists. Because press freedom, in the end, must give real benefit for the people,” he said. (*)
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