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Professional Standards Called Into Question

Pacific Media Watch:

Pasifik Nius:

By Kafil Yamin

JAKARTA, Feb 21 (IPS) - Indonesia's respected newsmagazine 'Tempo' probably thought it was merely addressing an issue that many members of the local media had been dodging for months.

But right after the popular weekly came out with an article in its Jan 31-Feb 6 issue that said the media had taken sides in covering the Christian-Muslim clashes in the Moluccas, furious complaints poured into the 'Tempo' newsroom -- regarding the piece's own alleged prejudices.

Adding to the irony is that those who feel miffed are the very sources of the article, including journalists. At least to its credit, 'Tempo' found it fit to publish the complaints as well.

''You have quoted my words incompletely,'' wrote Ihkwanul Kiram Mashuri,managing editor of the 'Republika' daily. ''Some key words were missing. You only picked my sentences that support your assumption, and kept other sentences that were not.''

'Tempo' manager editor Tariq Hadad says that in this case, the error lay with the reporter when he was sorting out his information, including quotes. ''There is always a possibility for such mistakes, despite our control system,'' he said in an interview.

But observers say that whether or not the newsmagazine piece was flawed, it is time that the local media took a careful look at themselves and determine if they are really sacrificing professional standards for sensationalism, as more and more people now say they are doing.

In truth, media furores such as the one that broke over 'Tempo' story are no longer uncommon in Indonesia.

Indeed, even journalists themselves are expressing disappointment over what their colleagues are producing, and attributing the decline in quality to the new 'reformasi' era.

The euphoria from suddenly being free after decades of authoritarian rule under Suharto has partly led to a mushrooming of publications, not least due to changes in the law that removed the old restrictive requirements for coming out with a publication.

The downside, they say, is that many of the newcomers are producing substandard work. Says one veteran media practitioner: ''They are not aware they are bound by their professional ethics and sensibility.''

To be sure, this is what gave rise to the issue tackled by the controversial 'Tempo' story: that the media are now even fomenting unrest in the country by not covering news in an objective and fair manner.

Before 'Tempo' came out with its piece, the talk about town was that there had been little attempt among the local media to be neutral in covering the Molucca unrest. In fact, critics say they worsened the situation there with their allegedly biased and inaccurate reporting.

Both Moluccas officials and the local militry command say more than 1,600 people have been reported killed in the intermittent clashes between Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas, which is more famously known as the Spice Islands.

Yet while some media analysts concede that there have been journalists who may have been remiss in their reporting on the Moluccas, there are those who believe that there are still a few who are conscious of their responsibilities in coverage.

Press Consumers Institute Director Sirikit Syah says that many journalists actually wanted to provide balanced reports, but were hampered by the situation on field.

She points out that a Muslim reporter could not enter a Christian area while a Christian journalist encountered the same problem in trying to cover a

Muslim community. Even the 'Kompas' daily, which Sirikit credits for its relatively neutral coverage, admits to such difficulties.

''If we are labelled neutral, it is because we are highly cautious in this case,'' says 'Kompas' managing editor August Parengkuan. ''We prefer official sources instead of man-on-the-street sources. We do not require direct contact with warring camps because we don't want our reporters (to) get killed.''

Atmakusumah, director of Dr Sutomo Press Institute who blames the media for the escalation of violence in the Moluccas, says 'Kompas' made the right decision.

According to Atmakusumah, ''man-on-the-street sources are commonly explosive and emotional''.

But Ulil Abshar Abdalla, a researcher of the Institute for the Free Flow of Information, says a strategy such as that employed by 'Kompas' is not foolproof. ''With such a stand, 'Kompas' failed to provide clear and honest reports,'' he argues, saying that ''there are many facts'' that officials try to hide.

With media analysts themselves in disagreement, it is no wonder that the public can sometimes have what seems to be a confused opinion regarding the media.

A recent poll by the Bandung-based 'Pikiran Rakyat' daily, for instance, showed only 20 percent of the 500 respondents saying they trust media reports. But the same survey also said 66 percent saw journalists as trustworthy.

''This is an interesting phenomenon,'' comments media expert Noor Achirul Laela. ''They give a minus score to media organisations and give credit to journalists.''

But unlike other observers who see the boom in publications as a bane to journalism, Laela sees it as a ''blessing in disguise''. She notes, ''The readers are sceptical to many news because they are now more critical and intelligent. And that is because of the media.''

Most media analysts and journalists at least agree that the proliferation of publications very likely maintains the democratic atmosphere and keeps the government in check.

Observes a Jakarta-based reporter: ''In the past, it may not be difficult for the authorities to silence the media by threats or bribes. Now, it is impossible to bribe all publications -- unless the bribers are willing to fall totally bankrupt.'' (END/IPS/ap-cr-ip/ky/ccb/js/00)


PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, and Pactok Communications, in Sydney and Port Moresby.

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