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Column: Power And The Press: Love And Hatred

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By Atmakusumah [Chairman of the Press Council and lecturer at the Dr. Soetomo Press Institute in Jakarta]

JAKARTA (Tempo/Pacific Media Watch):

WHEN we want to critically analyse press reports in the media, then a question comes up in our mind: which media? The press media is so pluralistic and heterogenic.

That also happened when we heard President Megawati Sukarnoputri's criticism about the content and style of press reports. On National Press Day in Denpasar on February 9, she said: "I'd like the community to join me in taking a critical attitude against the press for doing their job arbitrarily, irresponsibly and unprofessionally. More than just for keeping the balance, a critical attitude is also very much needed for the development of the press itself. It would be too costly, if just because of the irresponsible attitude of a small part of the press community, the entire national press would be tainted."

It's difficult to respond to the president's criticism. For nothing else than that, she did not offer any detailed supporting explanation or arguments. The president just expressed an idea. That is what the Press Council in a "public hearing session" of the House of Representatives Defense and Security Commission stated in Jakarta on January 30. That's why the Press Council urged that whoever, the presidential office included, speaks about errors made by press media, should do so more specifically.

Five months after becoming president, in a meeting with board members of the Press Council on December 28, 2001, Megawati already complained about news reports that she considered "not nationalistic" or "unpatriotic" in a number of printed and electronic media. A council member then explained to the president, more or less, "Journalists have sometimes to report incidents or cases that they don't like to. Albeit facing such a dilemma, they still feel obliged to make the report, as the information might be needed, by the public as well as those handling the government's policy."

The apprehension of power holders toward the press is of course not unusual. Between the two there's a relationship that could be likened to "feelings between love and hatred". A classical relationship when the press is hugged or the opposite, pushed aside, depending on the needs and interests.

Such a relationship also existed during President Abdurrahman Wahid's era. In February 2001 for instance, reportedly the presidential palace even asked TVRI, the national TV station, to stop reporting news on "downgrading, cornering and damaging" protest against the president and presidential institutions. TVRI was reportedly also requested to apply a "firm pre-censorship" and to air news that could "cool down the political atmosphere". This request was very much like the censorship during the New Order era, as said by TEMPO magazine and is clearly a violation of press freedom.

President Abdurrahman Wahid often accused the press of "twisting" his statements, without mentioning which media he meant. He also expressed the idea of setting up an institution to monitor media and establish his own journalistic standards. (Even now, some politicians and reporters reportedly have the desire to formulate a definition on "Indonesian journalism standards").

To understand President Megawati's apprehension of the press, especially after the government's announcement on the fuel, electricity and telephone price hikes, we should know which press media the president looks at on a daily basis. Because, according to the Press Council's explanation to the House defense and security commission, when we closely watch a number of mainstream press media, we would notice sufficiently serious efforts to provide balanced news and comments.

It is assumed, that it is Rakyat Merdeka daily and the like, if we relate to President Megawati's statements at Denpasar about "the irresponsible acts of a small group of the press community". Critics of such political and common sensation-seeking dailies, criticize their use of the language as "uncommon"-unlike the mainstream press's language, which is "good and right". The language such media use is bombastic and is even considered improper or inappropriate.

How great is the influence of such media? Not clear. A sensationalistic newspaper like Rakyat Merdeka has a moderate circulation-about 100,000 copies. If an average of four people read one copy, then there are less than half a million readers. The circulation numbers of most of this kind of media are even smaller.

What about the language used? Bombastic language-just to incite emotions-could be effective, if used just once, not if it is used continuously. But if used every day or in each edition, then it would have little influence, as the reader gets bored. Worse still, the reader would lose confidence in the content of such media, which are playing with words, when the information they provide is incomplete and superficial, whereas the subject of the news has become irritated.



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 based in Sydney, Journalism Studies at the University of PNG (UPNG), the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and Community Communications Online (c2o).

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