In late 1998, five months after Indonesia’s President Suharto was forced to step down from his 33-year authoritarian rule, a grand evening ball of more than 1,000 guests was organized in a colonial-era Jakarta museum. Ministers, foreign diplomats, business leaders, artists, students and many journalists were wined and dined to celebrate the relaunching of Tempo magazine. Goenawan Mohamad, a poet-cum-editor of Tempo, and other Tempo board members chatted with their colleagues, shook hands with hundreds of guests, gave speeches, and always smiled.

Tempo is Indonesia’s most well-known newspaper. It is known not only because of its quality but also because in June 1994 it was banned by the Suharto regime. But Goenawan Mohamad and his mates fought back and sued the government. They also helped organize street protests in many Indonesian cities. An independent journalist union was established following the banning of Tempo along with two other newsweeklies. Suharto had ordered the closure of Tempo, Detik and Editor weeklies a few days after he had made a public speech berating the media, saying that “certain media” had pitted one official against another.

In September 1994, Mohamad went to court to contest the closing. He won in district court in mid-1995, but the government appealed the ruling. In November 1995, Mohamad won again in the higher court. Again the government appealed, sending the case to the Supreme Court. Suharto allegedly asked the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the government and, in June 1996, Mohamad lost when the court made its ruling.

The evening’s ball would not have happened if President Suharto had still been in power, as many Indonesians believed in the early 1990’s he would be. “He will die in office,” whispered many in private conversations. Suharto, a retired army general, controlled not only the military but also the bureaucracy, the business sector, and political parties. But because of the Asian economic crisis, his power base was heavily hammered, and Suharto was forced to step down.

Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country of 220 million people, entered a new post-Suharto era. Within a few weeks, Suharto’s successor, President B.J. Habibie, announced that his administration would relax the government’s news media control and reissue the publishing licenses of banned newspapers such as Tempo. Media reforms did not stop there. A newly elected parliament passed a liberal press law in 1999. And Habibie’s successor, President Abdurrahman Wahid, even closed down the notorious Ministry of Information (a euphemism for ministry of propaganda).

These events marked the beginning of a new era in Indonesia. It became a time when people could publish a newspaper without worrying about government licenses. Journalists could write what they judged fit to print. No longer did cameramen need to hide their videos when dealing with their nervous editors. And readers did not have to improve their ability to read between the lines—a skill very much valued in the preceding years.

Sensitive issues such as the Indonesian occupation of East Timor or independent movements, such as those in Aceh and Papua, respectively Indonesia’s most western and eastern provinces, were reported with perspectives gathered from both sides. The Indonesian military, which had used its repressive measures against journalists for three decades, faced the reality that it could not pressure editors anymore.

The new openness also increased the number of newspapers. Three years ago, there were about 200. Now there are about 800. Where there were six national TV stations, now there are 10, excluding more than a dozen provincial stations whose broadcast licenses are issued by local governments. Since commercial radio began in the 1930’s, this is the first time in Indonesian history that radio stations have been able to produce news reports. As a result, about 100 radio stations started to produce their own news reports. During the Suharto era, there were about 6,000 people working as journalists, and now that number has more than doubled. (One association of journalists puts the total number closer to 20,000.) And where once there was only one state-sponsored organization for journalists to belong to, today there are more than 30 journalistic associations.

With these impressive numerical increases come questions regarding the quality and durability of this new journalism environment. Where have these new reporters come from? Who has trained them? Has media freedom been institutionalized in Indonesia? And has the quality improved as hundreds of short-term journalistic trainings have taken place throughout Indonesia, hosted by both local and foreign organizations after Suharto’s fall?

Answers to these questions are very complicated. But what is clear today is that most in the Indonesian media still grapple with basic journalistic practices and economic difficulties. Publishers and TV owners, both local and foreign, have no choice but to entice and recruit experienced editors from the more established news organizations. Editors then recruit fresh university graduates, but there is little time provided for training, so many mistakes are made. News organizations themselves do not provide extensive training. When space exists, some of these new journalists might be sent to a proper training program such as those offered by Goenawan Mohamad’s Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information.

To increase readers and listeners, a lot of news organizations rely on sex and crime stories. According to the Indonesian Advertising Agencies Association, this year’s entire advertisement expense is estimated to increase by 30 percent. Because 60 percent of the revenues will go to television stations, newspapers compete fiercely for these dollars. Therefore it is not surprising that many of them, along with radio stations, turn to coverage of sex and crime, using headlines that scream sensationalism.

In recent years, many in the elite circles of Jakarta frequently complained about the quality of news coverage in Indonesian newspapers, radio and television stations. In December of last year, President Megawati Sukarnoputri said that many media reports were not accurate, and their reporters did not check and recheck their stories. But to put her comments in context, Megawati lost some of her standing among journalists and media advocates after she took power from President Wahid in July 2000 and immediately revived the Ministry of Information, albeit changing its name to the Ministry of Information and Communication (another euphemism). Vice President Hamzah Haz has jokingly blamed the media’s predicament on a former aide to President Habibie who is widely praised for unshackling Suharto’s draconian media rules. Haz said that if that minister had not opened the genie, today’s media would not be this sensational.

Parliament members also repeatedly blasted the media and even proposed to review the 1999 press law, despite having been the ones who passed this liberal press law. Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, who became the chairman of the Press Council after the law was passed, has to work hard to keep those impatient politicians from harming the media through passage of new restrictive legislation.

Politicians, government officials, business leaders, and academics also criticize journalists for being corrupt. It is widely believed among them that journalists regularly received “envelopes”—a common Suharto-era practice among government officials and business leaders to put money inside envelopes given to journalists covering their events or speeches. A survey done by Pantau magazine showed that 80 percent of the 240 Jakarta journalists surveyed who work for 15 mainstream news organizations said they had never received “envelopes” and consider them bribes. But nearly 20 percent do take envelopes.

In a country considered to be one of the most corrupt in the world (the international watchdog group Transparency International considers Indonesia one of the five most corrupt countries in the world), it is pretty difficult to find a profession untainted by corruption. President Megawati even called her own bureaucrats “trash bins.” Police and military officers are notorious for corruption. Military officers, judges, government prosecutors, lawyers, bankers and politicians are also notorious for their corrupt practices. Even the speaker of the parliament, Akbar Tandjung, theoretically Indonesia’s fourth in power, now faces trial for corruption. (Tempo spearheaded the investigation of Tandjung’s corrupt practices.)

The world has also changed after September 11. Countries have been pressured to choose to be pro-America or anti-America in the ongoing war against the so-called global terrorism. Indonesian media confront extremely difficult questions in helping their audience to understand the complexities of this war. The difficulty arises not only because they work in the world’s largest Muslim country, which is trying to bring about a democratic government, but also they face the threat of a returning authoritarianism in the name of national security. Indonesia has its own problem of terrorism amid its own ethnic violence and battles between Christians and Muslims in the Moluccan Islands and some other provinces. On Christmas Eve 2000, more than 30 churches were simultaneously bombed in several Indonesian cities. The government has tried to introduce a “terrorism bill” and a “national security bill” that many in the human rights community fear might be used to suppress the new democracy in Indonesia. Some members of Parliament also tried to amend the press law.

The evening’s ball celebrating the relaunching of Tempo was a joyous point in Indonesia’s struggle to institutionalize its newfound media freedom. But it takes a lot of time, energy and sacrifice to elevate the standards of journalism in this new and much more complex environment.

Andreas Harsono, a 2000 Nieman Fellow, is the managing editor of the Jakarta-based Pantau magazine, a monthly newspaper about media and journalism.

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