Indonesian press freedom dates back only three years, but the press remains a continual target of criticism and abuse, usually from government officials or politicians. The most recent case, for example, involved in a Consultative Meeting of the DPR Commission 1 with the press community in March 2002.
In this meeting, a number of members of parliament (MPs) from various fractions opined that the press is erratic, invades privacy, spreads pornography and fans conflict. A DPR member even said with some enthusiasm, 'Before Indonesian society was oppressed by the military, now they are oppressed by the press.' The State Minister for Information and Communication, Syamsul Muarif, has categorised these criticisms into five diseases of the press, namely: pornography, character assassination, false and provocative news, misleading advertisements, and unprofessional journalists (called bodrex).
In itself, this criticism is above board and healthy for the development of the press. However, recent developments indicate that the government and some politicians are responding to dissatisfaction with the press through systematic efforts to again muzzle the press.
These signals include the discussion of draft broadcast laws, the suggested revision to Law No.40/1999 concerning the Press and the strength of the anti-pornography campaign targeted at the press. Various suggested draft legislation could also eat away at press freedom. For instance, the proposed anti-pornography, state secret and anti-terrorist legislation. These various signals strengthen the hunch that a regime of closedness is putting itself in order to again reign over Indonesia. This negative campaign targeting the press's work ethic is an entry point for those who wish to silence freedom.
The number of penal threats in the draft broadcast laws reflects politicians' fear of press freedom. Nineteen of the 63 clauses of the DPR's draft broadcast law are penal threats. These clauses are not relevant in a broadcast law, as they are contained in the Criminal Code and other related legislation. The government's version of the draft broadcast law, like that of the DPR, demonstrates a desire to control the public's right of expression, communication, and the right to obtain information.
The government and some MPs thought of revising Law no 40/1999 concerning the press, which they have always considered to be too liberal. Their intended revisions, amongst others, were to insert a number of clauses from the Criminal Code, to give the Press Law more teeth. Once again, politicians showed no faith in Indonesia's legal system, and felt the need to duplicate clauses from the Criminal Code in other legislation.
This trend is also evident in the suggestion to draft anti-pornography legislation. Pornography is already regulated by Clause 282 of the Criminal Code. The press is the real target of this anti-pornography campaign. This is clear because little fuss has been made about the most blatant and spectacular pornographic product: VCDs, which can be obtained easily by the side of the road.
Members of parliament have complained that every day no less than 2000 journalists (many of them bodrex) make their fortune by asking the members for money. This problem is so 'complicated' for the MPs, and in the end they blame freedom of the press, or chide the Press Council or journalists' organisations for not working to administer journalists. But the problem has an easy solution. Journalists who are authorised to cover news at parliament just need to be given a clear identity card. After all, why do bodrex flock to parliament? Because MPs charitably give journalists envelopes of money, and in so doing attract the interest of those claiming to be journalists. As such, haven't MPs actually played their part in the spread of bodrex?
Politicians' support for freedom of the press is questionable. In October 1999, then president Abdurrahman Wahid stressed that information (the press) was a community affair, and no longer a government affair. However, Indonesia's politicians clearly have no faith in the positive potential of press freedom. They only see the negative aspects. A desire to control, govern, threaten and take action still dominates. Politicians appear to be insincere in their support for a free press, and they are not patient enough to allow self-regulation-through market forces and press community initiatives-to operate.
The 'chaos' produced by press freedom is now being put in order. The number of print media in Indonesia, which did explode to 1881, has now returned to 556, according to Press Council data. The number of journalists' organisations had swelled to more than 40, but these have started to fold and less than five are now truly operative. During the last three years, a media watch institution has been established to monitor the press. Legal action has also been taken against 18 print media judged to have published 'pornographic' material, after complaints from the community. Almost two years after its establishment, the independent Press Council has received 120 complaints and endeavoured to mediate between the community and the press. Journalists' organisations and non-government organisations have actively organised discussions, training, workshops and education to improve the ethics and professionalism of journalists. This has included specific training on investigative reporting, peace journalism, and the connection between the media and human rights, autonomy and transparency.
The various efforts of the press community and society to improve the quality of the Indonesian press have by no means immediately resulted in ideal conditions or the sort of press that we hope for. Moreover, what sort of press do Indonesians hope for? Like society, the press is extremely diverse. There will always be tabloids oriented to gossip, sensationalism, criminality and even indecency. However, there will also assuredly be many serious (mainstream) media that apply professional journalistic standards and become a reference for the public in forming opinions.
Criticism of the press in Indonesia frequently relies on a fleeting impression or a generalisation, and accusations are not accompanied by data: which Indonesian press, when was it erratic? Various accusations are also often off the mark; for example, someone might take an entertainment tabloid or gossip rag seriously. In any case, the solution to disappointment with the press is very simple. You just need to stop buying or subscribing, or turn off the radio or TV if you don't like the program. If you have been wronged by press coverage, use your right of reply, complain to the Press Council. If it is particularly serious, refer the matter to the courts.
Our hopes for the role of the press depend heavily on our taste and choices in consuming the press. So many choices, such variety - that is the beauty, and the risk, of democracy and freedom. Unfortunately, politicians tend to see only risk rather and not the opportunity of press freedom. They claim moral authority and speak on behalf of the public interest so that they can impose their own value systems. Through formal regulations, such as legislation, they institutionalise their attitudes.
If Indonesia's politicians could be patient with a power (the New Order) that was not under control and was erratic for 30 years, why can't they be patient with the press, which has been not under control for only three years? I asked a similar question three years at a seminar in Jakarta to respond to various abuse directed at the press, particularly by a number of government officials and DPR members who wanted the immediate reintroduction of the licensing (SIUPP) system, and to bring the press under control again, after only a few months of freedom. They have continued to try to bring the press under control to the present day.
Just how serious are the consequences of the poor capacity of the press, that politicians have been so inconvenienced and furious. Just how bad have the excesses produced by the press in Indonesia been, that there is such a large desire to shackle freedom of the press? Politicians need to remember: the press is a private enterprise, which doesn't use the people's taxes, does not drain on the budget, nor are press workers paid by the state (in contrast to members of parliament and government officials). The press is chosen by and responsible to its readership, at any moment its consumers can choose it or toss it away. And of course, the press has no legal immunity. From time to time it can be taken to court to account for its products.
The capacity of parts of the press in Indonesia is indeed still poor. Why not improve this capacity, rather than restricting the atmosphere of freedom. Give freedom of the press a chance to repair itself.
Lukas Luwarso (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Executive Director of the Indonesian Press Council and the head of the Jakarta Branch of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.