Aliansi Jurnalis Independen

Year-end notes on press freedom in 2001
December 26, 2001, 6:48 pm
Filed under: Laporan

Country/Topic: Indonesia
Date: 02 January 2002
Source: Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI)
Type(s) of violation(s):

(AJI/IFEX) – The following is a 26 December 2001 AJI report:  Year-end notes on press freedom in 2001
* Press Freedom still in danger

The press situation throughout 2001 was dismal. Journalists can indeed now write about anything, largely without fear of being banned or shot. The publication license which had the potential of ending the life of any media outlet which was critical against the government no longer exists. We now have Press Law no. 40/1999, which prohibits censorship and press bans, and even threatens all parties who stand in the way of press freedom with a maximum of two years’ imprisonment and a fine of Rp 500 million. Still, this year was also marked by various problems which can threaten this fledging press freedom.

Violence: One continuous threat is violence. While media content is often found to be offensive, in the absence of legal enforcement, offended parties tend to ignore the right of reply, the right to lodge lawsuits against the press and the right to corrections. Such parties prefer a shortcut to settle their problems with the press, by assaulting media offices and beating or kidnapping reporters. AJI’s data shows that throughout 2001 there were no less than 95 cases of pressure and violence against journalists.

Acts of violence against journalists and the mass media are not only high in number; they are deeply saddening. Twice this year, the daily Serambi Indonesia did not publish, both times because of dissatisfaction on the part of GAM with its coverage. In the first instance, SI did not reach readers for one day on June 20. In August, publication was stopped for at least 10 days.

One journalist was killed. On June 3, residents of Poso in Central Sulawesi found a body floating along the Poso River in Tanah Runtuh, gebang Rejo sub district in Poso Kota. Two stones weighing 70 kilograms were tied to the corpse’s swollen neck with a sign reading “Bone sugar factory.” The head was shaved clean and the face could not be recognized due to severe wounds; the nose was broken and the left eye was missing. Stab wounds were found all over the body, which was later identified as that of I Wayan Sumariasana of the Poso Post daily. The motive for the murder remains unclear.

To make matters worse, in the above noted 95 cases, less than 5 percent of suspects were brought to trial. Absence of law enforcement to protect journalists can lead to the perception that violence against press workers is permissible under the law. AJI’s data reveals that police officers are the second most frequent perpetrators of pressure and violence against journalists. Apart from beating journalists, police frequently summon journalists as witnesses. On its seventh anniversary, AJI therefore named GAM and the police among enemies of press freedom in Indonesia.

The threat of violence has led to anxiety in the media workplace and to self-censorship. Some in the media have therefore avoided writing potentially offensive material about certain groups. Media executives admit to this self-censorship. An editor from the Jawa Pos group told AJI in March that following the occupation of Jawa Pos on May 6, the largest daily in East Java province became very careful in writing about former president Abdurrahman Wahid (or Gus Dur), and his organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama, to avoid the wrath of NU and Gus Dur supporters. In addition, Jawa Pos, the editor said, once manipulated photographs of an anti-Gus Dur rally by students, so as not to offend his supporters.

Such self-censorship serves to silence the press, which is supposed to be a watchdog – while in the country’s experience, the absence of control has led to arbitrary national leadership. Self-censorship also obstructs the public’s right to know because of the distorted information the public receives – leading to an equally distorted public participation in the political process.

Threats from the state: Threats from the state cannot be taken light-heartedly, even in these times of “freedom.” Signs of government intervention were clear from the set up of a State Ministry for Information and Communication in August. While information should be the business of society, the state was set to make it its business again. The Megawati government also plans to ratify the draft law on the criminal code. The former criminal code contained 37 clauses which had the potential of curtailing press freedom – while the new law has at least 40 clauses which could send journalists to jail. Intentions to control the press were also evident in signs of cooperation between Information Minister Syamsul Muarif and the legislature, in trying to include clauses from the criminal code which could put the press on trial. This was disclosed following a working meeting between legislators of Commission I and the minister on December 7.

Earlier, the draft law on broadcasting formulated by the House of Representatives (DPR), which was submitted to the government on February 20, had already raised concern among the broadcasting society, which feared that their newly-found freedom was under potential threat. For instance, 21 out of 63 clauses in the draft law stipulate fines and punishments for broadcasting institutions that are considered to have violated the law.

Regulations and draft laws that threaten press freedom have so far rarely been used. But experience with the former governments shows that press freedom only exists during the “honeymoon periods” between the media and new governments. Soekarno’s presidency was highly accommodating towards the press up to the parliamentary period. However, after the regime’s power was consolidated in September 1957, Soekarno and the military rulers banned 10 dailies. In February 1965, 21 dailies in Jakarta and Medan were banned. A month later, eight publications in various cities were also banned.

Similarly, the New Order banned 12 publications at the end of the honeymoon period, just after the January riots of 1976. Four years later, the New Order banned seven dailies and seven campus media. In June 1994, the government banned the Tempo and Editor magazines and the Detik news tabloid. History shows that the government is never truly in favor of press freedom.

Journalists’ low welfare: This problem continues to be of great concern for AJI. Our 1999 survey in Jakarta, our 2000 survey in East Java and our 2001 survey in Medan (North Sumatra) and Makassar (South Sulawesi) show that journalists’ wages in these four areas were relatively low compared to living expenses. In Jakarta, most reporters had a take home pay of below Rp 1 million, and even 2.5 percent of journalists claimed a wage of under Rp 250,000.

In East Java, most reporters (86.2 percent) said they received wages of less than Rp 1 million, or mostly between Rp 250,000 to Rp 500,000; while 15.2 percent of journalists surveyed in East Java said they received less than Rp 100,000.

In Medan, AJI found that 28 percent of journalists received wages of Rp 200,000 to Rp 400,000, while 26 percent received less than Rp 200,000. In Makassar, most journalists received less than Rp 400,000 a month. More than 30 percent of reporters were still paid under Rp 200,000, while more than 40 percent received Rp 200, 000 to Rp 400,000.

“Envelopes”, “bodrex” journalists: Such low wages often lead to justifying the acceptance of bribes or “envelopes” which clearly hampers a journalist’s integrity and independence. “How can we edit our stories if we’re hungry?” one journalist said. Such practices are clearly unacceptable and, similarly to the actions of civil servants who say they impose levies because of their small salaries, should not be tolerated.

It is hard to uphold the profession’s ethics while issues of welfare and solidarity are not tackled. Therefore, the issue of unions becomes central to AJI, whereby press workers can negotiate problems of welfare with their employers.

Media management gains directly from prioritizing the welfare of their workers, as this relates to business continuity. How can a company expect professionalism from its journalist while he or she is busy moonlighting or seeking other sources of income?

AJI also feels that the state and a wide range of corporations directly contribute to the “envelope culture.” The issue of bribes goes two ways. A survey disclosed that each year no less than Rp 864 billion was distributed to 64 state owned companies for journalists’ “envelopes.” A journalist would receive such money only because of his identity as a journalist; he has the power to create public opinion. The party giving out this money has only one purpose in mind, namely favorable coverage, which is why envelopes can be seen as nothing less than bribes.

The late former attorney general, Ali Said, once told a press conference: “While Napoleon is more scared of one journalist than one battalion, I fear 10 soldiers more than 100 journalists, from whom I can protect myself through 100 envelopes.”

The abundance of “benevolent” parties towards journalists has led to criminal acts and to the abuse of the profession. The phenomenon of fake journalists – dubbed here, as “bodrex journalists” -remained a feature of the press in 2001. These parties have become increasingly open in their practices, such as blackmailing. On June 26, in Surabaya, East Java, two companies from the Maspion Group held a shareholders’ meeting at a hotel. They intended to conduct a public exposé and a press conference, which was cancelled following intimidation from fake journalists. They enlisted 75 names to receive “envelopes” and stated that they had been offended for not being invited. Maspion was subsequently accused of belittling the press and of violating the Press Laws. Journalists demanded apologies through a half-page advertisement in the media and filed a report against Maspion with the police two days later.

Such practices are criminal and disturbing to the victims and to the press community itself as they further damage the press’ credibility. The journalistic profession has come to be viewed as one involving blackmailing, extortion and fraud. Therefore, AJI’s view is that law officers, in this case the police, should be firm against such “journalists”.

“Deaths” in the media: This year has seen the fall of numerous publications with business on a steady decline. A number of national publications have closed, including the Detak and Tekad news tabloids and the Tajuknews magazine. The Forum Keadilan news magazine also faces the threat of closure. AJI’s data shows that of the 289 publications circulated before the fall of Soeharto in 1998, only 218 survived by the end of 2000. From 1,398 publication permits (SIUPP) issued after the fall of Soeharto, only 487 publications survived. However, only 15 percent of those still publishing can be categorized as having a relatively well-run business, while 75 percent are less fortunate and have not been able to pay press workers well.

The cause of the collapsing business, mainly experienced by the print media, can be traced to three reasons. First, many publications emerged merely because they were carried away in the euphoria of press freedom and were not professionally managed. Second, the resulting saturated market further tightened competition among media. Third, there was difficulty in attracting funds from investors – either because of the media outlet’s small level of capital or the lack of capital accumulation as the product could not sell.

Other problems quickly followed the closure of media publications, specifically layoffs under unfavorable conditions. The Panasea magazine laid off 19 employees in complete disregard of their rights. The Forum Keadilan magazine told 26 workers that they were temporarily out of work (“dirumahkan,” made to stay at home). The Pos Kita daily in Solo also fired 15 employees without due attention to their rights.

Going too far: The many complaints and criticisms which emerged following the new found press freedom have led to the widely held belief that the press has gone too far. The great number of new media, journalists who are new to the profession and the tight competition have resulted in several media distributing provocative, sensationalistic news, most evident in those touching on politics and sex. “Satan America!” screamed one national daily’s headline on October 9. On the same page and the same day, another one of the daily’s headings read, “Bush and Blair to the gallows.” Media thriving on politics often use such a language style, while those specializing in sex-related coverage are also swarming the market, exploiting images of women. These include the tabloids of WOW, Pop, seXXY, BliTZ, LiPSTICK and BOS.

What is worrying is the potential justification to control the press based on the belief that the press has gone too far. It is this mindset which has led to suggestions to revise the Press Law. This was revealed in a meeting between the information minister and legislators in early December. The press law was considered to have failed in overcoming excesses of press freedom.

AJI feels that such thinking is ridiculous and based on distorted assumptions. Excesses are not the business of a press law. Lawsuits can be raised in such cases, which already fall under the Criminal Code. Minister Syamsul Muarif and legislators had intended to include a summary of 37 related rules regarding potential lawsuits against the press, in the revised press law. Such clauses, including the ones on “hate speech” and “enmity towards the government”, are full of stipulations inherited from the colonial rule.

All journalists’ organizations, media companies and the Press Council have a responsibility to uphold the code of ethics. Not only does this lead to a more dignified press freedom; it also serves to silence those parties which are against press freedom and intend to regain control over the press. AJI also supports the role of the Press Council as an “ethics police” which can at any time apply moral sanctions to any media violating the journalist’s code of ethics.

Press freedom can bring good or bad results; but without press freedom there is only disaster. The press can indeed go too far; but a state without press freedom is a state that has gone too far, and this is the ultimate disaster.

Jakarta, 26 December 2001

Ati Nurbaiti

Secretary General


For further information, contact the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen, AJI), Jl. LAN I no. 12 A, Pejompongan, Jakarta Pusat, Indonesia, tel: +62 21 5711 044/056, fax: +62 21 5711 063, e-mail:, Internet: (as of May 2001)

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