International Editor of the Year Award

1998 Recipient

Goenawan Mohamad

Goenawan Mohamad

Goenawan Mohamad, editor of Tempo.

In 1999 World Press Review honored the Indonesian editor Goenawan Mohamad as 1998 International Editor of the Year. The award goes to an editor outside the United States in recognition of enterprise, courage, and leadership in advancing the freedom and responsibility of the press, enhancing human rights, and fostering excellence in journalism.

Surviving Suharto's Repression

When the corrupt Suharto regime banned Indonesia's top newsmagazine in 1994, Goenawan Mohamad, Tempo's editor, refused to take no for an answer. He put Tempo on the Internet, where it continued to tell Indonesians what was happening to their country. "The government had no law to ban us on the Internet," says Goenawan.

Goenawan had founded Tempo in 1971, modeling it after Time magazine and carving out a feistily independent editorial line. Circulation soon grew to 200,000. Suharto cracked down with a two-month suspension of the magazine in 1981, and in 1994, after Tempo started investigating corruption reports about Suharto's protégé, B.J. Habibie, the magazine was closed for good. There was no official explanation, says Goenawan: "We got a letter saying Tempo was destabilizing the country." Following the ban, people took to the streets, he says. "I was very moved by that. The protest was so strong, including from foreign countries."

Working secretly with other journalists, Goenawan set up a news agency network to provide information for underground newspapers. Reporters from newspapers that were still printing would file self-censored copy to them and then write more complete stories for the underground network, he says, "giving us the real truth. no holds barred."

The network's credibility was enhanced by the fact that its sources included officials within the government who saw their loyalty as being to the truth and to their country, not to the regime. "Some were very honest, despite all this corruption," says Goenawan. "Disgusted by the whole system," he says, they were willing to blow the whistle if they could remain anonymous.

Meanwhile, Goenawan and his associates knew they were taking considerable risks. Goenawan's home and his family were under police surveillance. To produce their underground publications, he and his staff worked in a series of safe houses throughout Jakarta. When a government spy infiltrated the organization. which happened several times. production would shut down, and the whole operation would move to another house. Sometimes, however, the spy's presence was signaled only by a police raid. After a house was raided, the police would search everyone on the premises. "I was frightened every time," says Goenawan.

In the same period, Goenawan founded the Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information (ISAI). "It was a new way of circumventing the information blockage by the government," he says. "We published instant books on current affairs. They were usually banned after about a year, but by then they had been circulated clandestinely, including to campus newspapers all over the country." ISAI also gave training courses for student journalists to show them how to produce newspapers "more professionally and convincingly," says Goenawan.

When Suharto was driven from office in May, 1998, and succeeded by none other than B.J. Habibie, Tempo's prospects didn't look good. But Habibie has been moving to restore democratic practices, including press freedom. Since October, 1998, Tempo has been back on the streets. With a cover price of 8,700 rupiah ($1), the magazine has already built up a weekly circulation of 100,000. The format has changed little. "But after four years in the wilderness, most of the [old magazine's] leading reporters had moved to jobs on various newspapers," says Goenawan.

"Thanks to the banning and all the publicity at that time, we were well known when we started up again." Attracting advertisers is hard, he says, because of the collapse of Indonesia's economy. "But thanks to Tempo's reputation, we've got the edge there, too."

"The chief difference in 1999 is that the magazine is no longer subjected to government censorship. ... We've had no problems since restarting. not a single reprimand." Lieutenant General Mohamad Yunus, Habibie's new information minister, "has been very liberal," says Goenawan. "We are euphoric that he agreed to our demands for more press freedom. He immediately revoked the regulation that gave the minister the power to revoke [press] licenses." In the past, it took seven years to go through the bureaucratic steps to start a publication, "unless, of course, you were prepared to pay the necessary bribes. Now it only takes three days."

Picking up where it had left off, the new Tempo's reporters began investigating the story that apparently caused its banning five years ago. At that time, the magazine reported that Habibie's family had an interest in a government deal he had made to buy 39 decrepit East German warships. Renewing the investigation was a direct challenge to the new president's commitment to press freedom. But, says Goenawan, there was no reaction from Habibie when Tempo printed the story.

Indonesia now has a burgeoning number of publications. But Goenawan is not worried about competition, arguing that there is plenty of scope. "After all, we have in Indonesia a population of 200 million people spread over 13,000 islands and with 30 languages," he says.

Goenawan was born 57 years ago in the small town of Batang in Central Java. Before he was 18, he had already had poems and essays published. At the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, he studied psychology and philosophy. Then he went into journalism.

The year 1965 brought political turmoil to Indonesia. In the wake of an attempted military coup, many hundreds of thousands of people were killed on suspicion of being communists or trade unionists. President Sukarno relinquished power to Suharto six months later. After that "Year of Living Dangerously," made famous by Peter Weir's 1983 film, Goenawan went overseas to the Collège d'Europe in Belgium to get a postgraduate degree in political science. "I went not to study but to escape from the stifling political situation at home," he says. He returned to Jakarta in 1967 and started a daily newspaper called Harian Kami; he went on to work on other magazines until he founded Tempo.

After his turbulent career, Goenawan says he is ready to hand over the editorship to someone else. But he will still write his weekly column, train young journalists, and write poetry. He also plans to establish a media watch organization based in Jakarta, "a sort of ombudsman," as he describes it.

First, though, he will cover the legislative elections in June, when as many as 100 political parties could be running candidates. Goenawan believes a United Nations-supervised referendum should be held to give the people of East Timor the opportunity to decide their future. "Tempo would opt for freedom and independence. But, economically, it's going to get tough" for the East Timorese, he says.

Writer, editor, activist, and poet, for more than 30 years Goenawan has set standards for journalists around the world. He has won a Harvard University Nieman Fellowship for journalism and the Press Freedom Award of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Ever hopeful, he looks forward to continuing change in Indonesia. As he told reporter Andreas Harsono of the Internet journal American Reporter, "It's like building a new country."

— Charles Stokes

Goenawan Mohamad has written extensively on politics, economics, and art over the last three decades. The following pieces reprinted in the April, 1999, issue of World Press Review reflect his thinking on the media and on Indonesia's future. The first is part of an address he made to a PEN Congress in 1995. The second is from an archive of Goenawan's writings posted on the Web.

The Power of the Press

The issue of freedom of expression is not about certain collective precepts and principles, or the formulation of common values, but like other issues related to human rights, in the beginning it is about violence and suffering. The issue starts from a certain sensibility. To quote Emmanuel Levinas, the French philosopher, it is a sensibility that takes place "on the surface of the skin, at the end of the nerve." In other words, it is a sensibility when one looks at the face of the victim.

There is a story I love to use as a case in point in which the issue of freedom is tightly caught up not only with a reading of Western canons but with real murder and real fear. In June, 1994, Tempo. the magazine I edited. was banned by the government together with two other magazines, Editor and DeTik. Thirty days later, I went to a remote village on the island of Madura, in the east of Java, more than 600 miles from Tempo's office. I was invited to take part in a public "prayer of concern" organized by a 100-year-old religious school in the village. Some 2,000 people attended.

I used to think that such an expression of sympathy. in this case for Tempo, an urban-based publication. would only take place on campuses or among the middle classes. So I asked the host why, of all people, he did it. The answer was forthright: Two months before the banning, four peasants from the neighboring village had been shot dead by the military when they staged a protest against the construction of a dam on their land. Tempo and others sent reporters to cover the incident, and when the story was published, it attracted nationwide attention, and the central government was forced to act to appease the anger of the Madurese.

By having independent press coverage publicize their plight, the Madurese had found some kind of protection. Their fear was that, with a press that could no longer work freely, more murders could take place unnoticed, more abuses unchecked. Whoever says that when freedom dies, it never dies alone, is absolutely right.

— Goenawan Mohamad,
Index on Censorship (human-rights bimonthly),
London, February, 1997

Beyond Cursing the Darkness

Years ago, [Singapore's senior minister] Lee Kuan Yew told me that the problem with a ruling party that has been in power for too long is that it normally attracts only those young people seeking to make a fast climb on the career ladder. People with good leadership qualities and strong characters prefer, by and large, to stay on the outside.

In my experience working with young people, I have met many who are outside, and even against, the system. They believe that this is a way to rectify the mistakes perpetuated by years of unbridled corruption. And they do not want to remain idle. One of the slogans they often quote says, "Let's not just curse the darkness; let's light the candle."

They know that this candle-lighting business takes a long time to really matter. They want to create a genuine political movement, and they are ready to pay the price, since only by achieving power can they transform the country into a place where good governance is possible. They are learning to build networks and create broad-based support for their ideals. They know that there are lessons to be learned from pro-democratic movements elsewhere.

Luckily, the best of them abhor racial and religious bigotry. They know from firsthand experience that the need for basic human rights and social justice is not transplanted from Western textbooks; it comes from people's history of adversity. Of course, everyone knows that there are miles to go before they can eventually succeed. Of course, they may fail. But they are generating hope.

As you can see, I am speaking of hope as something different from the usual light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel metaphor. As Lu Xun, the Chinese writer, put it, "Hope is like a country road; in the beginning, there was no such path, but after many people walked on it, it was created."

— Goenawan Mohamad,
The Old Man and the Haze,
January 9, 1998

 

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