INDONESIAN JOURNALISM: FROM LIBERATION TO DEFAMATION
by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
JAKARTA, Indonesia, July 10, 2003 -- It began in June last year when Kompas, Indonesia's largest daily newspaper, published a report about former president Abdurrahman Wahid's intention to remove a young politician from his key party post. Kompas quoted "a source" as saying that Cholil Bisri, a senior member of the party, had objected to Wahid's proposal and threatened to resign if secretary-general Saifullah Yusuf was removed. Wahid reportedly said that Yusuf was involved in "money politics" -a practice of vote buying among Indonesian politicians.
It was published deep inside Kompas' pages, but the report still immediately stirred up party officials. Bisri is a respected Muslim ulema, or teacher, who is also a deputy speaker of Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly -the highest state institution in this, the world's largest Muslim country.
Wahid was Indonesia's first democratically-elected president. He is also known as an advocate of religious tolerance. In the 1970's and '80s, Wahid, who is affectionally known as Gus Dur, regularly wrote columns for Kompas and other newspapers. Yusuf, too, is a former journalist who once worked for the Detik tabloid paper and is a distant relative of Wahid.
Wahid denied the report. Reportedly angered, he asked his lawyer, Salim Muhammad, to file a law suit against Kompas. Salim told the police on June 14 that the report was wrong. He alleged that Kompas had slandered Wahid.
Some media outlets reported the lawsuit, including Kompas, but no news of it was published after that. Citizens were left in the dark. Did the police move on the report's findings? Did Kompas apologize? Did Wahid drop the law suit?
Welcome to the complexities of Indonesia's media politics.
Indonesian journalists first tasted freedom after the fall of authoritarian President Suharto (like many indonesians, hwe used just one name) in May 1998. His successor, B.J. Habibie, helped pass a new press law that abandons the Dutch-inherited 250-year-old newspaper licensing regulations. When Wahid took over the chief executive's seat from Habibie, he made an even bolder decision. He abolished the notorious Ministry of Information - the government propaganda arm and media censor. `Indonesians were free to publish any newspaper - and they did. According to the Indonesian Publishers Association, the number of newspapers jumped from around 260 in May 1998 to more than 600 last year. The number of radio stations increased by a third to more than 800. National television networks climbed from only six in the Suharto era to 11 by 2003 - excluding channels which broadcast just regionally. The number of persons describimng themselves as journalists also jumped from around 6,000 to more than 22,000.
The result was quite spectacular. Indonesian media became aggressive. They targeted politicians, generals, clerics, etc. Many of the media also labelled their stories "investigative reporting" - despite their lack of experience in day-to-day journalism. Many politicians, including Wahid, have been embarassed or worse, even having to step down from power, at least partly due to media exposure of wrongdoing.
Meanwhile many complaints were made about sloppy reporting. Journalists too easily granted the status of anonymity to sources. Indonesian newspapers also don't use bylines, deepening the sense of authoritarian speech. The Kompas story on Wahid, for instance, was jointly written by Mohammad Bakir and Elok Dyah Messawati. But the word "written" is perhapps too strong q word, as in the paper it read only "by MBA/LOK" - the acronyms of "Mohamad Bakir" and "Elok Dyah Messawati."
The innovation of bylines, which was introduced in the Western media in the late 19th century, is still a foreign idea among Indonesian journalists. It is not to say about other innovations such as fire wall, columnist et cetera. Many protocols, which are the heart of this practice of gathering and selecting information, are not yet implemented in Indonesian newspapers. It is not surprising that many politicians stated that Indonesian journalists here are widely seen to be "kebablasan" - "over the limit."
Eriyanto, a media analyst with Pantau magazine, found out last year in a survey that 15 percent of Jakarta's mainstream media reporters had received "envelopes" - money inside envelopes that is given to journalists after interviews or media conferences. They also do not understand that the gifts given to them usually have strings attached.
Indonesia's Press Council reported that between April 2000 and December 2002, it had received 277 media complaints, most of them in Jakarta (131). The record holders are Kompas daily (13), Tempo magazine (9) and the Media Indonesia daily (9) - three of the most serious publications in Indonesia. The complaints don't necessarily mean that these three mainstream voices offer bad journalism but that proportionally, these three received more complaints than others.
The practice of anonymity climaxed on March 8, when dozens of thugs stormed the office of Tempo magazine - the Indonesian equivalent of America's Time Magazine - in downtown Jakarta, protesting a Tempo report about business tycoon Tomy Winata and beating up some Tempo journalists, including editor-in-chief Bambang Harymurti and staff writer Ahmad Taufik, a hero of the anti-Suharto revolution.
The anonymous source was a "consulting designer" who was quoted by Tempo as saying that Winata had submitted a proposal to the Jakarta government to renovate the huge Tanah Abang market. Winata reportedly submitted the proposal prior to the burning of the market, and ther article may have left unsaid an implication that Winata, a businessman with a shadowy reputation, may have ordered the burning.
He was angered. Winata denied both the proposal and the attack. Ciputra, a property tycoon who owns a significant share of Tempo, issued a statement saying that Tempo was wrong. "There was never such a proposal," Ciputra said. The police arrested some of the thugs and have prosecuted them. Winata filed a lawsuit against Ahmad Taufik and PT Tempo Inti Media, demanding a total of U.S.$14.6 million in compensation.
The lawsuit is based on Taufik's statement on the chronology of the March 8 attack. Taufik closed his statement by saying that Tomy owned "entertainment spots and gambling dens." Tomy's legal team said that the statement had inflicted losses on their client as many of Tomy's partners had canceled their business deals with him.
Inadequate understanding of journalistic procedures and tight business competition have created many difficult situations among Indonesian journalists. Many editors are also not well equipped to deal with the growing complexities of media phenomenon. The arrival of television and Internet also added the difficulties.
Muhammad A.S. Hikam, a close adviser to Wahid, told me that Wahid had dropped the lawsuit against Kompas after berating Muhammad Bakir - who wrote the anonymous article. Hikam said Bakir had apologized and admitted that the source was Saifullah Yusuf himself. "Bakir was systematically used by Saifullah," said Hikam.
But Bakir told me that he had gone to see Wahid to calm the high tension between the men. "Kompas management asked me to calm him down," Bakir said, adding that he had actually interviewed four sources, which included Yusuf, but not Wahid. He said he did not write the story himself. "I just gave a diskette to Elok and she was the one who wrote the story," he said.
"I did no wrong. I apologized because he is a respected figure. I myself am a member of the Nahdlatul Ulama and he used to be the chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama."
Bakir gave me the three other names, apparently forgetting that a journalist is supposed to keep secret his anonymous sources' names. Elok told me that every Kompas reporter has the right to grant anonymity as long as he or she believes in the source.
It is no wonder that the quality of Indonesian journalism has nosedived seriously. And ironically, it has happened when these journalists won the freedom to write what they wish.