An evolving free press in Indonesia

An evolving free press in Indonesia

In the fourth of a five-part series of articles on Indonesia, Post editor-in-chief Michael Hayes looks at the state of the print media in the country and what hurdles it is currently facing.

Jihadmagz is one of thousands of new titles to hit the streets in Indonesia since controls were lifted on issuing publishing licences.  It includes articles such as "Jihad forever Mujahid never die" and "Mullah Muyhammad Umar, the Giant man from Khurasan".

Since the fall of Indonesian President Suharto in 1998, the print media in the world's fourth most-populous nation has evolved from a tightly controlled industry regularly threatened with closures and licence suspensions to one that has become possibly the freest in all of Southeast Asia.

It has been a breathtaking transformation.

However, newspaper editors and media analysts say the press still wrestles with a number of problems, including maintaining respectable standards of ethics, coping with pressure groups and a lack of appreciation among the broader Indonesian population of the role of a free press in a functioning democracy.

During Suharto's New Order years from 1966 to 1998, the government kept a tight lid on the press. Editors were regularly called and bluntly told what the party line was, or whether they were publishing news that was unacceptable.

Through a system of publishing and newsprint licences, the government had the final say on who could publish and what was printed. If a paper strayed too far, its licence was revoked or it was strangled by closing its access to paper.  

"During Suharto we didn't have a free press," said Budhiana Kartawijaya, deputy chief editor for Pikiran Rakyat, a Bandung-based daily newspaper with a circulation of about 200,000. "We had pressure from the military, the Ministry of Information, local government. It was so strong.

"At that time we had a ‘telephone culture'," he said.

"If the state didn't agree with a story, they telephoned the chief editor. Sometimes I got calls, especially when a case concerned the military or the first family."

"We were closed twice before," said Yuli Ismartono, executive editor of Tempo magazine's English edition. "We lost a hell of a lot of money."

Tempo is widely considered to be Indonesia's most respected news magazine, known for the quality of its investigative reporting. During the

1980s and '90s, the paper had an ongoing battle with the government, resulting in several lawsuits and eventually closures.


After 1998, when a process of major reforms was introduced, the government scrapped the system of press licences and eventually closed the Ministry of Information.

Now anybody can start a publication, and the number of newspapers and magazines in circulation has jumped from the Suharto-era total of around 400 to over 5,000.

"The press is freer than most places [in Southeast Asia] except the Philippines, but the quality is so low there it shines here," said Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based senior adviser at the International Crisis Group who has monitored political developments in Indonesia for almost three decades. "Even at the height of the New Order, it was freer than Singapore and Malaysia, so the media is building from a vibrant base."

"We like to think we have the freest press in the region, but I think we are beaten by Cambodia," said Endy Bayuni, chief editor at the Jakarta Post. "We have so much freedom now that you wouldn't have thought we'd have it 10 years ago."

But with a free press comes new challenges.

"We have free press with regard to the government, but with radical groups, that is our challenge," said Kartawijaya. "Sometimes there is violence, but not so often. We have to educate people to understand the role of the press."

We have free press with regard to the government, but with radical groups that is our challenge.

Bayuni at the Jakarta Post echoes these sentiments.
"We get pressured more and more by private organisations, political parties and the radical Islamic groups," he said.  "Sometimes journalists are physically harassed. In spite of guarantees, our ranking is not as high as we'd like it to be."

Indonesia, not unlike most nations with large Muslim populations, has seen a radicalisation of some Islamic institutions, associations and political parties. It was two conservative Muslim political parties, the Prosperous Justice Party and the Crescent Star Party, which were behind the successful push to get the Indonesian Parliament to pass an anti-pornography bill on October 30.  

The bill had been a hot topic of debate for months, especially in a nation that has its own Indonesian-language, albeit a milder version of, Playboy and where fairly hardcore black-market porn is readily available in the side streets of Jakarta.

While in the end a watered -own version was passed - it cut out earlier provisions that would have banned tourists from wearing bikinis - there are concerns that the bill will be used to crack down on a wide array of published materials and practices.


With fewer threats from the executive branch, the Indonesian press still has to wrestle with the judiciary and an angry public that is increasingly willing to use it to deal with a press they at times see as irresponsible.

Like the problems the Cambodian press faces, Indonesia has a variety of press-related laws that can be used to interpret cases.

"Our efforts are focused on decriminalising libel and defamation," said Ismartono.  "We have a press law, however the old criminal code has never been nor will be changed because the government won't let it."

"We've had our share of lawsuits, which is fine," Bayuni said. "If we make mistakes, we should bear the consequences. But we are trying to convince the judiciary all cases on defamation should be tried in a civil court."

Bayuni says, not surprisingly, that many cases are settled out of court.

The press, as well, is struggling with its ability to get access to government information.

"Access to information is something we have been fighting for for 10 years," Bayuni said. "We have new legislation in place similar to the Freedom of Information Act in the US. It was enacted in April but requires a two-year grace period to become effective."

Bayuni says the government has countered with its own State Secrets Act legislation in which "everything is classified".

Finding qualified journalists who have a well-honed sense of ethics is also a problem.  

Bayuni at the Post says they are hard to find and that his staff lack investigative reporting skills.  

While Tempo has always had a strict "no envelope" policy, meaning reporters were not allowed to take bribes, Ismartono says it is still difficult to find ethical reporters.

"I don't think this is taught in journalism schools, at least the ones we have," she said.

Overall, all sources spoken to were generally optimistic about the evolution of Indonesia's press.  There were problems to deal with, but trends were positive.

"It's an exciting time to be a journalist," concluded Ismartono. "It's a challenge to  report truthfully, but the requirement to be responsible is still a big challenge for us."


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