Trouble Ahead for Indonesia's Free Press?

Indonesian Press
Australian journalist Lindsay Murdoch's visa difficulties have led to concern over the future of Indonesia's lively press (Photo: AFP).  

One of the most public debates about press freedom in Indonesia since mass rioting brought Suharto’s rigid, 32-year presidency to its knees in 1998 is coming to an unceremonious close at the end of a secluded, nondescript street in south Jakarta behind a padlocked gate.

Sprawling behind the tall bars lies a whitewashed villa not at all out of place in its palm-fringed, ornately upper-class surroundings. Out back, a black-and-yellow parrot named Rupert chirps contentedly, to no one in particular, almost like a well-tuned instrument.

Inside, Rupert's owner, an Australian journalist named Lindsay Murdoch, swivels in his chair, and rests his feet on a desk next to a laptop. On the other side of the room is a topographical map of the Indonesian archipelago he has covered for more than three years. Close by lie several neat piles of the two newspapers for which Murdoch has been writing, The Melbourne Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, stacked a few feet high.

"The've told me nothing," insisted Murdoch, 48, when asked why he has been shown the door from his latest posting in Southeast Asia, where he has been working for the last decade.

At issue is a confrontation between the Indonesian Foreign Ministry on one side, and Murdoch, his employers at John Fairfax Pty. Ltd.—which owns both papers—and the Australian government on the other.

The conflict began in November, when officials in Jakarta refused to renew Murdoch's 12-month journalist visa. Instead, he was given a three-month extension. In the ensuing weeks, talks began between Indonesian officials and Fairfax, with Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer applying quiet pressure at the meetings.

Downer’s intercession produced few compromises. On March 10, Murdoch's visa expired. He has since been allowed back in to the country on a business visa.

In the end, the two papers alerted Jakarta's local and international press corps. Soon afterwards, stories appeared in news outlets in Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States, including The South China Morning Post, The New York Times, The Australian, and CNN. The opening salvos were fired by the Fairfax broadsheets.

"Sadly, for each and every step forward in Indonesia's transition towards a democratic society, the forces of resistance seem just as capable of producing spectacular reversals," lamented Melbourne’s centrist The Age on March 19.

A statement from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald noted "this [was] the first occasion since the Suharto regime where a foreign correspondent has been challenged in such a manner." The editors "respectfully rejected" that any government can choose which foreign journalists are "acceptable for reporting."

The Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club (JFCC) called on the government to reverse its decision and explain its policy. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists followed suit, lodging a formal complaint with President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

In November, a JFCC statement noted, Megawati herself told the People's Consultative Assembly that the national media was the "freest in Asia. The government no longer imposes any strings—or even restrictions—upon the society to express its opinion," she said at the time.

But in this instance, at least, Indonesian officials are refusing to bow to local and international pressure.

To some media observers here, this is not altogether surprising: It was the Megawati government, after all, which resurrected the Suharto-era Ministry of Information. It had been banned by her immediate predecessor, former President Abdurrahman Wahid.

Noted Indonesian publisher Aristides Katoppo, whose daily newspaper, Sinar Harapan, was shut down by Suharto's New Order regime in 1988, knows a thing or two about media censorship here.

Speaking at a JFCC panel discussion on the matter, he recalled that Megawati's father, Sukarno, allowed the press a free hand when he became the first leader of Indonesia after the Dutch colonial administration left in the mid-1940s. After consolidating his power, though, he cracked down on the independent press, shuttering dozens of publications in Java, and several more in other parts of the country.

But since 1998, noted Katoppo, despite economic woes, rampant corruption, and political instability, Indonesia, unlike its neighbors in the region—notably Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand—has enjoyed the distinction of having a truly free press. It is only now that "Indonesia is catching up [to its neighbors in restrictions on the press]. I perceive there is a great moral to this story, and there is a great danger here," Katoppo said.

Goenawan Mohamad, editor Jakarta’s independent newsmagazine, Tempo, when it was closed by the government in 1994, and 1999 winner of World Press Review’s International Editor of the Year Award, echoed similar feelings.

"There was a lot of sacrifice by journalists to gain freedom of the press," he said. "I am afraid another attempt will be made to reduce press freedom—if that happens, there is no alternative but to fight again, and we are ready."

Also on the JFCC panel was Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalagawa, who did his best to put a better face on what he called a procedural decision by committee. "This is not some sign of sinister officials in a smoke-filled room—it's just a forum," he said. "It's not something that came out of the blue."

Ironically, Murdoch is not the first Herald reporter to run afoul of Indonesian officialdom. In 1986, David Jenkins' reporting on the wealth the Suharto clan had amassed in office prompted a blanket ban on all Australian journalists. Ten years passed before another Herald correspondent was allowed to return.

Two stories in particular, Murdoch says, seem to have attracted the government's attention this time around. In May 2001 in Aceh, a province that is an unhappy home to an Indonesian Military (TNI) counter-insurgency campaign against an Islamic separatist movement, he documented an incident in which a TNI soldier poured boiling water on a four-month-old baby. The child later died.

The other story concerned East Timor, a former Portuguese-run enclave which voted to break from Jakarta in a 1999 UN referendum, triggering mass looting and killing by TNI militia proxies that left 1,000 dead and little standing. Washington abruptly severed military ties with Jakarta, and Murdoch received two Walkley awards, the highest honors in Australian journalism, for his coverage.

In June 2001 his article, "Timor's Lost Children," ran on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald. In it, Murdoch recounted a pro-Jakarta militiaman spiriting children away from Timor, and their parents, to an orphanage in Java. The article hinted that once they arrived at the orphanage, the children were being brainwashed to not want to see their parents again and to oppose an independent East Timor. The story won Murdoch a prestigious Melbourne Press Club award.

Again, the mild-mannered Natalagawa strenuously emphasized that Jakarta's intentions were benign. "I'm sorry to bore you," he said, sounding genuinely exasperated in the face of repeated questions. "It is perhaps a misunderstanding—nothing more than that; I really don't wish to add much."

At one point, acknowledging the raised hand of a reporter, he said, "I hope this is the last question on the subject."

Others are more sanguine, and suggest less newsworthy motives behind the government's decision not to renew Murdoch's journalist visa. They note that Murdoch was not expelled, and that the Foreign Ministry is allowing Fairfax to send another correspondent.

"It might have been a technical thing, it might have been personal," said one Indonesian news editor at a prominent Jakarta daily, who requested anonymity. "But in the end, they only mentioned one name, and that was Lindsay Murdoch. There are people here who have covered Indonesia longer—and they haven't been kicked out."

Those wary of government censorship, nonetheless, may yet have cause for concern: Addressing a group of Indonesians in Seoul toward the end of a trip to China and both halves of the Korean peninsula this week, President Megawati lauded the three countries for their national discipline—and curbs on the media.

Addressing critics of her administration in the press and elsewhere, she said, "We've only just begun and haven't had a chance to do anything yet, and already we're condemned ... How do you expect to catch up to other nations this way?" For the sake of dearly needed foreign investment, she added, "We need to improve our image."

A spate of recent trials makes it seem as if the Indonesian government is trying—albeit in its own way—to do exactly that.

On March 20, three Timorese militiamen were acquitted of killing a New Zealand peacekeeping soldier, and trials are underway against low-level military and police officials for human rights atrocities in East Timor. Their commanders, widely seen as having far greater responsibility, look on in a show of support in a central Jakarta courtroom—and, at times, park their cars in the judges' spaces in the parking lot outside.

House speaker Akbar Tandjung, facing up to 20 years' imprisonment, is on trial for embezzling US$4 million in state funds. The Central Bank Governor was sentenced to three years in jail for his role in a banking scandal on March 13, but is free on appeal. Like Akbar, he has yet to quit his job.

Suharto's favorite son, Tommy, is also in the dock for ordering the killing of the judge who sentenced him to jail for corruption. Ensconced in a cell with air conditioning, a private bathroom and two televisions, according to Tempo magazine, he faces a maximum penalty of death via a 30-page indictment. He was scolded for slouching in court the other day.

"We have a lot on our plate in Indonesia right now," acknowledged Natalagawa.