Jakarta – The press in Indonesia has long learned never to take its freedoms for granted. Although international watchdogs rate our press freedom as "partly free", media outlets and journalists appreciate their independence compared with colleagues such as in neighboring Thailand, where the les majeste law applies. Yet various constraints emerge even as we continue to claim to be among the world's largest democracies.
Media leaders on Sunday will celebrate Press Day with President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, where we will continue to remind each other to fight against hoaxes. Of equal importance is the struggle to retain independence amid less visible threats compared with the authoritarian era. As with a les majeste law, politicians working on revising the Criminal Code reportedly wish to reinsert legal bans on insulting state symbols, including the president and vice president. For all the struggle for civil liberties, such developments ironically emerged during the last term of hugely popular President Jokowi.
Unlike the old days, the government will not revoke our press publishing licenses for such perceived insults; that ended under then-president BJ Habibie. But still, the defamation clause of the Electronic Transactions and Information Law can make the press jittery, leading to possible self-censorship. Hundreds of citizens have faced trial for defamation while advocates for freedom of expression have demanded a review of the law.
A "partly free" press has also meant some in the media in major cities enjoy independence while those far from the world's eye experience a stark contrast. At an ongoing trial at the Jakarta State Administrative Court, plaintiffs comprising civil society groups, including journalists' organizations, are suing the government for misconduct in its decision to restrict internet access in Papua and West Papua. The official excuse for the restrictions from last August to September was to check unrest and hoaxes.
Journalists in these provinces have cited difficulties, particularly in reporting on demonstrations, residents fleeing their homes and tense cities following a racist incident in Surabaya, East Java. Such blockades naturally result in a greater potential for misinformation, while we know little of the victims in security operations in Nduga, Papua.
Many of the developments in the ongoing global coronavirus crisis depend on transparent information from China, and all governments, regarding suspected infections and their related measures. It is in times like this that we acutely understand the need for freedom to access information and to report it, so that people can pause before clicking on anything that comes their way, and wait a little while for the results of the checking and rechecking of old-fashioned journalism.
Much of the criticism of the press is well deserved. However precisely because we have a hugely popular leader, who has turned out to have adeptly embraced his former opponents, the press remains among the relatively few precious watchdogs of Indonesia's government and democracy.
The Jakarta Post continues to join the public in improving Indonesia's safe space for all to speak out, amid sinister threats such as from cyberbullies, intolerant tyrants and the blind loyalists of various leaders.