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Indonesia, media

The Dilemma: A Free Press in a Transitional Society

Yuli Ismartono is a trailblazer. In 1990 she penetrated and reported from a Tamil Tigers camp. While stationed in Thailand, she interviewed an opium warlord. Now the Deputy Chief Editor of Tempo magazine’s English language edition, she spends time in rapidly-changing Myanmar. And in Jakarta in March, Yuli celebrated Tempo’s 40th birthday with a lecture for Indonesian Heritage Society friends.

Her speech took us on a tour of the neighborhood magazine stand and Indonesia’s media landscape past and present. For to understand Indonesia’s media and its history is to understand Indonesia’s culture and history.

“Indonesian press today is known as one of the freest in Asia. I think it doesn’t really deserve it [that reputation], although we have fought long and hard for it,” Yuli said.

Wholly- Indonesian newspapers were first published in 1907. Prior to this, newspapers were run and owned by the Dutch.  The early local papers were vehicles for the budding nationalist movement. With the Japanese invasion in 1942, Japanese-run newspapers rose to prominence, although underground newspapers survived.

Following independence in 1945 there was a free but unfocused press, Yuli said. The ascendancy of President Sukarno and the principle of “Guided Democracy” (which saw the military, communists and religious leaders govern together under his leadership) led to censorship and the banning of liberal and opposition press. The rise of General Suharto to the Presidency in 1966 was initially welcomed by civil society, including journalists, although very quickly some ethnic Chinese reporters, and journalists and writers that were perceived to be sympathetic to the Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party) were imprisoned.

Tempo was born in March 1971, founded by opponents of the “Guided Democracy” restrictions, says Yuli. But the days of Suharto’s “New Order” proved to be a short honeymoon, with journalists and activists imprisoned in 1973 as tensions climaxed.  Censorship and threats re-surfaced. Media organizations had to be licensed, and journalists and editors had to be registered. Journalists in the provinces went missing or were killed.

In 1994 Tempo (plus Detik and Editor magazines) were completely banned, with Suharto saying Tempo would never again publish while he was alive. It was then that Tempo Interactive, the first news website in Indonesia, was born.

In fact Tempo resumed production of its print editions in 1999. Suharto resigned in 1997 in the face of protests and Indonesia’s economic collapse, prompting the era of reformasi (or reform.)

The period immediately after the introduction of reformasi was a heady time for the press, Yuli said. “We wrote extensively about corruption, were able to report on the once taboo topic of religion and ethnic tensions.” Publications like Tempo reappeared, and the press in Indonesia had never been freer.

Indonesia today has more publications than ever; 168 newspapers, and 243 magazines at last count. There is a profusion of terrestrial and cable radio and television stations, plus blogs and websites. Indonesia has close to 100 million internet users, is the second largest Facebook market in the world and the biggest user of Twitter.

“[The] publications business had become very lucrative and is thriving,” says Yuli. “[But] The new threat is wealth.”  Growing wealth allows politicians and business to own extensive media holdings. This blurring of boundaries between news organizations and news makers, has prompted the industry to work towards the enactment of antitrust laws.

Yuli identifies other present-day challenges as declining credibility with the public, ‘envelope journalism’ or the taking of bribes for coverage, violence against journalists (particularly in rural areas) and defamation laws that mean insulting someone is considered a criminal offense.

She believes the most difficult issue to report on now is communal conflicts, and that journalists and editors need to better understand and explain such conflicts and their causes in Lombok, Kalimantan, Ambon and elsewhere throughout Indonesia.

But given the many tribulations of Indonesia’s journalists over the years, Yuli sees cause for optimism. “I’ve painted a very pessimistic picture, but really it is improving.”

*This article was first published in the Indonesian Heritage Society’s March-May 2012 newsletter

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About Samantha Magick

Journalist and editor

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