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The road to press freedom has been a rocky one

Jakarta Post - May 22, 2008

Harry Bhaskara, Jakarta – In a sense, the media is like an eligible bride who often has a honeymoon with a new government.

In Indonesia, that honeymoon began in 1998 when autocrat Soeharto fell from grace and the press enjoyed freedom for the first time in more than two decades.

Soeharto ruled Indonesia for 32 years and his honeymoon with the media at the outset of his government lasted for about five years.

Today, the honeymoons with four successive governments since 1998 are over and there have been occasions when each of these new governments wanted to treat the press the old way.

This is fully understandable as the country has been ruled under two dictatorships, the first one being Sukarno from 1959 to 1965.

The lively and exuberant press of the 1950s returned in May 1998 when political reform kicked off.

The sudden air of freedom caught the press by surprise with some of them dangling on the verge of slander and libel. Others succumbed to the most unethical journalism practice by becoming mouthpieces of politicians or businessmen.

Press freedom arrived in Indonesia almost by accident. President B.J. Habibie, a confidant of Soeharto, badly needed a boost for his mediocre credibility as a reformist. He banished the requirement for a publishing company to obtain a government license in September 1999, a year after he was in power.

Now anyone who wants to publish a newspaper or magazine is free to do so without having to go through the bureaucracy as before. The only thing one needs to do is register the name of the paper or magazine at the government information office.

Consequently, the number of print media jumped from 300 in 1998 to 1,800 in 1999 before stabilizing at 600 today. The good news is that about one-third of these are on their way to becoming professional media, if they are not already there.

Radio stations increased from 700 in 1998 to 2,400 today while television stations went from five to about 30 in the same period.

Instantly, there was a demand for thousands of new journalists in a country where journalism schools were virtually non-existent.

This is reminiscence of the banking deregulation in the early 1990s when there was a steep increase in the number of banks but there were not enough people trained in banking.

It is easy to predict what will happen to the media when thousands of new reporters, mostly without proper journalism training, enter the workforce. Journalism ethics violations have had a field day.

Apart from a shortage of trained journalists, the violations occurred because of the late arrival of political freedom. The country lived under repressive systems for much too long, where problems like communal tensions and conflicts were swept under the carpet.

The danger is that the public will blame press freedom for all the conflicts that suddenly burst to the surface.

In the last 10 years, government officials, businesspeople, members of the public and of the press who were familiar with dictatorships had to go through a painful learning process under a free press.

Their encounter with the new atmosphere has not been encouraging, with all the above stakeholders contributing to the less than elegant performance of the media.

Fresh in memory was the heap of eulogies coming from the broadcast media in the days when Soeharto was dying in January. This showed that the media is suffering from a split personality.

On one hand, they supported efforts to bring Soeharto to court for his alleged corruption; on the other hand, they perceived him as a hero. Reporters Without Borders ranked press freedom in Indonesia at 100 in 2007, down from 67 in 1999. This means that press freedom has actually been declining throughout the years.

Physical attacks, intimidation and killings of journalists have occurred regularly throughout the country in the last 10 years.

A high-profile decision by the Supreme Court that Time magazine's Asian edition should pay Rp 1 trillion to Soeharto for libel was a blow to press freedom as it discouraged investigative reporting.

Members of society, mostly uninformed about how to deal with the media, often resort to violence as in the attack on the office of East Java newspaper, Jawa Pos in May 2000.

The paper carried a story about an alleged transfer of Rp 35 billion in funds from the State Logistics Agency (Bulog) to a non-governmental organization linked to Hasyim Wahid, the brother of then president Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid.

Gus Dur, former chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and founder of the National Awakening Party (PKB), denied the report.

Despite his credibility as a reformist, Gus Dur, once he became president, was as hard hitting toward the press as could be by charging the paper with trying to topple him from power.

If Gus Dur could behave like that toward the press, what about other public figures who had less credibility as reformists? Attacks on media offices have been replicated throughout the country, including against Tempo magazine in March 2003 and Indo Pos in December 2005, both in Jakarta.

In Jakarta, Rakyat Merdeka chief editor Karim Paputungan was sentenced to five months in jail in September 2003 for insulting House of Representatives speaker Akbar Tandjung.

The daily's executive editor Supratman received a six-month suspended jail sentence in October of the same year for insulting president Megawati Soekarnoputri. The daily ran four articles including one that ran under the headline "Mulut Mega Bau Solar" (Mega's mouth smells of diesel fuel).

Conflict with power-holders recurred with producers of television political satire Republik Mimpi last year when Vice President Jusuf Kalla, short of stopping the program, showed his displeasure.

But there is hope on the horizon. When the media reported that Lt. Gen. Djadja Suparman was in Bali when the second Bali bombing occurred in 2005, the general was understandably furious because it implied that he might have been involved in the bombing.

He wanted to sue a number of media outlets but mediation from the Press Council helped pacify him. The general, now apparently with a better understanding of how the media works, had the magnanimity to pardon the media.

In a country where leadership culture is deeply entrenched with feudalism, the general's willingness to forgive is a rarity. He had the right to sue the media outlets in court.

The role of the Press Council, a newcomer in a free system, has given rise to hopes that press freedom is here to stay.

This year saw the enactment of the access to information law. It was the culmination of a long fight for press freedom in the country in the last 10 years.

Critics say the law has many loopholes that have the potential of putting the press in hot water. Still, press freedom is about the only fruit of political reform in a country where the bureaucracy and the judiciary show a tendency of returning to old ways of doing things under a dictatorship.