Every other day Akhmad Nasir goes to an Internet café in the northern part of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. He is there for an hour or two, sending stories, checking e-mail, browsing Web sites, doing his research, and making appointments. “In busier days I work there every day,” Nasir says. For renting an Internet-connected PC in one of three cafés he frequents, Nasir pays 3,500 Indonesian rupiah per hour (around 40 cents).

This might sound cheap to an American, but most young Indonesian journalists, like the 25-year-old Nasir, earn less than $100 per month. This means that Nasir spends between 10 and 20 percent of his meager earnings just for the Internet. “It’s cheaper than buying a computer and having a telephone connection at home,” said Nasir. “Anyway, no telephone line is available in my village yet.”

Across Indonesia, lots of journalists—from writers in the head offices of hundreds of news organizations located in the capital, Jakarta, to stringers in medium-size cities in remote areas of Kalimantan or Sumatra—follow work patterns similar to Nasir. Internet specialist Wisnuhardana of the Jakarta-based “Info Komputer” magazine told me in October that this year he helped the Manila-based Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism organize journalist training in Indonesia. “I remember not more than 15 of the average 40 participants use the Internet and are familiar with e-mail,” said Wisnuhardana.

Gradually more and more Indonesian journalists are using the Internet. Stringers of Jakarta papers, which usually have no bureau offices, spend hours at Internet cafés to send reports or to receive instructions from their Jakarta editors. Only journalists of rich news organizations can access the Internet 24 hours a day from their office desks.

The arrival of the Internet among Indonesia’s journalists happened in a way that is a bit different than the American experience. It did not arrive with the formation of dot-com firms. Nor did it have an Amazon.com-styled stock explosion. Rather it emerged from the underground media during the late 1990’s, not through the emergence of commercial Web sites. Indonesian journalists were most probably among the first group of people in this country who extensively used the Internet. In fact, the name “Internet” was initially associated with the alternative media.

The Internet’s emergence occurred after President Suharto closed down three of Indonesia’s most important newsweeklies in 1994. Suharto not only closed down these magazines but also put pressure on editors not to hire journalists who were protesting the closure. In an authoritarian country such as Suharto’s Indonesia, it was not difficult to ask executives of the government-sanctioned Association of Indonesian Journalists to ask editors to fire their “recalcitrant journalists.”

Journalists who used to work for the banned weeklies, as well as colleagues who formed a journalist union to protest the banning, soon went to work underground. Some of them published print magazines, but others chose to write on mailing lists, channeling their work to the Internet rather than the usual print or broadcast media. I joined these groups of journalists. I helped set up the union, lost my job, and joined the Internet publication. I remember one night in a safe house a colleague and I had an informal talk after work. “Who will read our stories?” he wondered aloud. “How many list subscribers do we have? It’s only the elite, isn’t it?”

The answer was yes. With their news, ranging from the corruption of the Suhartos to breaking news from East Timor, and the method of transmission, they were reaching primarily the elite. In the mid-1990’s, there were not more than 200,000 Internet users registered in Indonesia. (The comparable figure now is around 800,000 but multiplies to four million or so when the use of Internet cafés is factored in.) Even so, these numbers are relatively small when compared with the Indonesian population of 210 million.

Two arguments were made. Goenawan Mohamad, the editor of Tempo, one of the three banned weeklies, believed that the most important facet of what we were doing was to create an understanding that “someone is watching” over the unbridled corruption in Suharto’s Indonesia. Since there was no law regulating this new media, Goenawan went ahead and published an Internet version called Tempo Interactive (www.tempo.co.id). The second argument is well reflected by a slogan that journalists often quote, “Let’s not just curse the darkness; let’s light the candle.”

Both perspectives proved to be right. Some of these alternative news Web sites recorded an amazing number of hits. Many journalists were puzzled and amused when people gave them photocopies of their downloaded stories. Street protesters distributed photocopied stories to the public and put the stories at bus stops and train stations. These Internet journalists used no bylines.

Many East Timorese students, who were studying on the Indonesian main island of Java, where Jakarta is located, also set up an Internet-based news network. Several joined hands with their Indonesian colleagues and learned how to make a laptop into a powerful and mobile Internet server and how to automatically encrypt their stories. Others joined the Indonesian underground network from the once occupied island of East Timor, feeding daily reports about human rights abuses and other political developments. One of them is now a founding editor of an East Timor-based newspaper.

The climax of the anti-Suharto movement came in May 1998, when hundreds of thousands of student protesters dramatically occupied the parliament building, forcing President Suharto, who had ruled the country since 1965, to step down from power. A new freedom was in the air. Tempo and another banned weekly began to be published again later that year. More than 1,000 new publications immediately entered the market. However, most them are sex-and-crime-driven newspapers or yellow political tabloids. Private radio stations were also allowed, for the first time in Indonesia’s history, to produce their own news reports. Alas, their news reporting quality is extremely poor, but it could be understood. Five new television stations are going to enter the market. Locally developed dot-com news providers, owned by both Indonesians and foreigners, are also appearing to offer Indonesians minute-by-minute news developments.

But the fall of Suharto came with a very high price. His departure occurred during the Asian economic crisis. During that time, the Indonesian rupiah lost about 70 percent of its value to the American dollar. At the height of the crisis, 15 million people lost their jobs in a single month. Prices of basic foodstuffs, such as rice, cooking oil and sugar, skyrocketed. Prices of imported goods, like computers, catapulted sky high. As the economy sank, 58 million people slipped below the poverty line. “In Indonesia, we have no government welfare system. On average every employed person has three dependents—a spouse, children and parents. So if 40 million are unemployed, it affects more than 100 million people, at least half of the population. That creates a big potential for social unrest. It can heat up any time,” said economist Laksamana Sukardi of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.

Journalists are not immune from this economic crisis. Friends of mine stopped their Internet connections to cut their expenses. Worse than that, more and more journalists are receiving “envelopes,” or bribes. Some surveys revealed that between 70 and 80 percent of Indonesian journalists take the “envelopes” from government offices or corporations.

Journalists such as Nasir, Wisnuhardana and me are a part of a violent and poor culture. Every day we read reports about people being killed in ethnic, religious or political violence in this vast archipelago. Aceh in northern Sumatra is now fighting for independence just as people are in West Papua on the easternmost part of Indonesia. The Maluku Islands are notorious because of their Muslim versus Christian conflict. These are shameful facts and yet, to the extent that they indicate lives lived on the very edge of precipices, I have no doubt that they are also part of what makes our archipelago compelling.

I met Nasir in late 1998 when he asked me to give a talk on journalism. He was editing a student tabloid in Yogyakarta. I found him to be a polite person and an idealist. As soon as he finished his undergraduate degree, he went to work at a Jakarta newspaper. After some months he decided to quit, going back to his village outside Yogyakarta to publish a very small community paper that recently won an award for its pioneering effort. Nasir is among a generation of journalists that keep hope alive in Indonesia’s world of journalism. He chooses to light a candle instead of curse the darkness that is so much a part of this nation’s poverty.

Andreas Harsono is the managing editor of the Pantau monthly magazine about the media and journalism published in Jakarta.

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