By Edward Cowan Posted Jan 1 2000
The staff of the Lombok Post were seated on the veranda outside the newspaper’s office, and I was talking to them about enterprise reporting. The discussion migrated to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
“Why was no American journalist arrested for writing about that?” asked a young reporter.
It was a reminder that, despite having a “free press” since the forced resignation of President Suharto in May 1998, Indonesian journalists don’t know how far they can take their freedom. One story, for example, identified a prominent citizen as a drug dealer but used only his initials in order to be “prudent.”
Indonesian journalists wonder what they can do about the “irresponsible” tabloids that account for some of the 1,401 new publication licenses issued as of mid-October under Suharto’s successor, B.J. Habibie. They wonder whether there should be criteria to qualify as a journalist and how the criteria should be determined. They want to know about investigative reporting, which to them means exposing government corruption.
Indonesian journalists dutifully covered the United Nations’ negotiations last spring for the referendum held in East Timor on Aug. 30. The people voted for independence, and journalists reported eagerly from Jakarta about the tension between Habibie and the military. But they did not report from East Timor about the support the army gave to anti-independence militias that went on a murderous rampage after the vote.
Perhaps that neglect had something to do with the anxiety among journalists about how far they can go before the government comes after them.
After decades of repression, protection from the power of the state is on the minds of Indonesian journalists. In Palu, on the west coast of Sulawesi, the general manager of the daily Mercusuar asked me whether the American government had regulations “to protect journalists.”
I explained the freedom of expression guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and added that American journalists don’t want government protection. I wondered if the discussion affected the journalists. Their situation could not be more different from the United States’.
The Indonesian Constitution says, “Freedom of association and assembly, of expressing opinions in verbal, written and other means, shall be regulated by law.” That idea echoes the authoritarian “guided democracy” of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, in 1957. Sukarno saw the press as a tool for social control. The next leader, Suharto, required the press to support the government and promote the common good as defined by the government.
Such supervision of the press was avowedly ended in 1998 by Habibie and his Minister of Information, Lt. Gen. Muhammad Yunus.
Yunus, not Habibie, is praised within press circles as more progressive than expected. He showed his mettle in July 1999, when the editors of five magazines deemed to have published “pornography” faced criminal charges. Despite pressure from the organizations that launched the anti-pornography campaign, Yunus did not revoke the licenses of the magazines.
As Indonesia gropes its way toward democracy, its journalists are discovering the privileges and limits of freedom. They want to learn how to cover corporate and government press releases. They want to know how to go beyond press releases. The more sophisticated Jakarta newspapers, such as Kompass and the Jakarta Post, are better at this than are provincial newspapers.
Prabudi Said, editor of Waspada, a daily in Medan, on Sumatra, said that his cub reporters are not afraid to demand interviews of important people, but “when they get [interviews], they don’t know what to ask.”
Training for rookies and mid-career journalists may help Indonesian editors and reporters answer their questions, but mostly they will find those answers in the gritty process of putting a newspaper to bed every night.