This was published as an opinion piece in the Jakarta Post on 3 July 2003

Restrictions and pressures from the TNI over reporting in Aceh, libel suits from businessmen like Tomy Winata against Tempo weekly, Texmaco boss Marimutu Sinivasan against Tempo and Kompas daily, as well as politicians Akbar Tandjung and President Megawati Soekarnoputri against Rakyat Merdeka, have prompted some senior journalists to proclaim that the Fourth Estate is under threat.

The Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICM) went one step further: There is foul play in the recent increase in the number of lawsuits against the media, it claims. “The powers which were momentarily discomfited by the reform movement are currently consolidating themselves,” proclaimed coordinator Teten Masduki.

So there you are — the evil and sinister forces are back and they are out to destroy press freedom through the courts. The implication here is that if the media loses any of these cases, it will be because of these sinister forces or the corrupt court system; but it can never be the fault of the press itself.

There is something flawed with the insinuations here. It presupposes a black-and-white world in which the bad guys (business fat cats and politicians) can do no good and the good guys (the free press) can do no wrong.

The press in Indonesia have certainly been the good guys even before Reformasi (reform). Tempo’s brave reporting, which led to its closure by the government in June 1994, is now legend. Other media pushed the envelope in ways that their, say, Malaysian or Singaporean counterparts would never dare.


The press was one of the major forces that brought about Reformasi and to this day, Indonesia has one of the most vibrant and free press in Southeast Asia. I remember a client from Singapore being in awe of Indonesian journalists because, contrary to her expectations, they were interested and asked more intelligent questions than their ASEAN neighbors.

Ironically, however, Indonesia’s press freedom may have also created the very conditions that could undermine its freedom.

The freedom that came after Reformasi allowed literally anyone to become a publisher or media owner. An explosion of the media industry was the result. Publications mushroomed overnight. Some failed, but still more filled their places. There are now so many publications in Indonesia that no one can keep track.

A testament to this explosion is the fact that Jakarta had only three TV stations in 1997 — it now has 11.

The rapid expansion of the industry resulted in a demand for talent that was not there. There are a few seasoned journalists who know their stuff, but they are vastly outnumbered by reporters who cannot get their facts and names right.

On Monday, a journalist wrote about our company’s first anniversary in a society column where, in a few short paragraphs and captions, he managed to change our evening function into a luncheon, our public relations consultancy into an event organizer, misspelled three names and even got the food we had served, wrong.

The media explosion also gave rise to intense competition. Since most of the publications, even the top ones, rely more on street — rather than subscription — sales for their circulation, the temptation to sensationalize and be the first with the hot news became extreme.

In such a market, the strong became stronger. Certain publications rode on their reputations to greater dominance of the market. Some of them now feel so unassailable that hubris has begun to creep in, while they feel that their journalistic standards are beyond reproach.

All these factors combined are the real threats to press freedom in Indonesia, not the political and business fat cats. In a democracy, these businesses actually have a right to sue the media if they feel that they are aggrieved and the media has acted in bad faith. The question here is whether the businessmen and politicians are justified in thinking so.

The sad conclusion is that the businesses and politicians, more often than not, have a valid legal case against the media but do not go to court because first, Indonesia is not a litigious society and second, it is an uphill task to pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

There have been many cases where a business was not given the right to respond or a chance to tell its side of the story. A colleague was once lectured by an editor on the immorality of my working for a conglomerate, when he called on behalf of a client to clarify certain points raised in a newspaper article. In the editor’s view, it was despicable to work for a conglomerate, and whatever the colleague had to say was not worth hearing.

Never mind the facts.

A readiness to pass judgment, an unwillingness to impose strict standards of checking facts, ignoring the principle of covering both sides of the story, not corroborating information from sources with a second or third source, not putting journalists who malign and make wild and damaging claims on record, and passing off innuendo and allegations as facts have been some of the sins of the media of late.

Taken collectively, they are the soft underbelly of the media when it comes to press freedom. If these problems are not solved soon, it would leave the media totally vulnerable to lawsuits that could bankrupt many media companies that we’d sooner see imperfect but open, rather than closed. It is denial that is the media’s biggest enemy to solving these problems. The sooner the media addresses these problems, the sooner Indonesia’s press freedom will be ensured.

While it is true that businessmen and politicians may conspire with the courts to act against the media, it is also true that the media — which has a history of drawing together as a single force, as evidenced during the Tomy Winata-Tempo case — can exert tremendous pressure. Judges, after all, also do not want to pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel.

No, it is not the courts nor the businessman nor the politicians that the media needs to fear in regards its freedom.

It is the media itself that is its greatest enemy.

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