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Struggle Continues To Achieve Press Freedom

South China Morning Post: Comment 8/5/00


JAKARTA: Despite the invasion of an East Java newspaper's offices by a mob of angry readers on Saturday, Indonesian journalists are optimistic about press freedom in their country.

At celebrations of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Indonesia's president outlined a new relationship between governments and media, and journalists from the former adversaries of East Timor and Indonesia talked of how they might help each other.

"I want to call attention to the fact that the Indonesian press needs protection as well as professionalism. The Government has to protect the press from the many forces who don't want freedom," said President Abdurrahman Wahid, as he opened a regional journalists' meeting in Jakarta organised by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) and Unesco.

"My administration looks with relish on the emergence of a free press," Mr Wahid said. That's why Jakarta was chosen, for the first time, as a location for a gathering of journalists to talk about their exercise of freedom. "We're holding this meeting here in recognition of the historical changes that have taken place in Indonesia in terms of liberalising the press," said Seapa's Lin Neumann. "Furthermore, the fact that Indonesia now has a free press is the most significant, inspiring advance for the entire region."

The concerns of Indonesian journalists at the meeting showed how far Indonesia's press has carved itself a newly-open environment. These concerns included the continuing aggression used against journalists by corrupt or lawless elements, but focused more on the need for professionalism in the now open industry.

The thesis was that now the fight for freedom had been won with the election of a new government under Mr Wahid, it is the duty of journalists to improve their skills to withstand pressures often more subtle than the murder or

harassment experienced under the Suharto regime.

"Press freedom in action seems to be more complicated and demanding than

press freedom in abstract," said Jakob Oetama, editor of the leading daily paper Kompas. "Press freedom is [now] to be translated into journalists' work as reporting, analysing and debating the day-to-day affairs of mankind."

Kompas, incidentally a Catholic-owned newspaper, found it difficult to report, for example, on the religious conflict in the Maluku Islands. Its Muslim reporter could not access Christian areas, so a Christian journalist was also assigned there. But when conflict spread to the North Maluku, even this newspaper could find no way to get anyone into the area.

"With regard to the conflict in Maluku, we in Kompas criticised ourselves," said Mr Oetama. "We asked ourselves how we failed to read and to ride the trends over there, why Kompas could not know beforehand that the conflict was imminent. "It is really true that media in Indonesia are free from the State and the government, but they are still threatened by the crowd."

In Indonesia, 21 cases have been recorded in the first four months of this year where journalists have been harassed, threatened and hurt, despite the more press-friendly government. Elsewhere in Asia, outside the relatively bright spots of the Philippines and Thailand, the picture remains much more grim.

"Journalism is not dead in Burma," said representative journalist Aung Zaw. "But it is in deep, deep coma. When I am asked to describe the state of journalism in Burma today, I am forced to admit that I have little to say. There has been no meaningful improvement in the past dozen years since the military regime seized power in a bloody coup in 1988. Therefore I can only say that there is little hope," he said.

Aung Zaw said the only ones with freedom of the press were the generals running Burma: "For the khaki-clad dictators of Burma, press freedom is absolute," he said. "They are free to use the media however they please."

Journalist Ham Hak recounted how in Cambodia, killings, takeovers and constant pressure on publishing licences contrived to keep the media on shaky ground. In Malaysia, harsh licensing laws are part of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's broader crackdown and strategy for clinging to power.

In East Timor, the problem is more basic - lack of a printing press, and lack of trucks with which to distribute publications anywhere outside the capital, Dili.

"Our other main problem is the training of journalists," said Carsiliano, the youthful editor of Maubere Lian who, like many Indonesians and East Timorese, goes by one name. His paper is published once a week in a mixture of Indonesian and local Tetum language. Also at the Jakarta meeting were Virgilio da Silva Guterres, editor of East Timor's Lalenok, and Hugo Aderito from the Timor Post. Mr Carsiliano said there were about 40 journalists in East Timor with no equipment and only rare access to outside sources such as the Internet.

The strongest sign that the Seapa message was working in Jakarta were the spirited discussions between Indonesians and East Timorese - whose rulers were at war less than a year ago - of such details as expanding radio frequencies in East Timor, and sharing knowledge about journalism skills.

The gathering was the first occasion in which East Timorese journalists had met publicly with their Indonesian colleagues since East Timor's pro-independence vote on August 30 last year.

"In the past, outside assistance was pivotal to highlight press abuses and violations of freedom of expression in Southeast Asia," said the Bangkok-based chairman of Seapa, Kavi Chongkittavorn, who is also the executive editor of the Nation newspaper in Bangkok. "Now, with growing press freedom in the region, this responsibility has fallen on the regional press."

* Vaudine England is the Post's Jakarta correspondent.


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