Solahudin, Secretary-General, Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), Jakarta
A former chief editor once said of press freedom: ""Press freedom means that I can rest well at deadline. I no longer need to scrutinize and correct all the copy which could make the country's leaders mad.""
Today we indeed no longer have dictators. But this does not mean the end of threats toward the press. The latest case was Saturday's demonstration by supporters of businessman Tomy Winata at the Central Jakarta office of Tempo magazine. While it was perfectly valid and legal for them to protest against the report regarding Tomy which they saw as slander, violence was also involved through the assault on chief editor Bambang Harymurti and one of the editors, according to witnesses. This occurred despite the fact that on Friday Tempo had received a written complaint and the parties had agreed to a dialog or legal recourse to settle the matter.
The report in the edition of March 3 revealed indications of Tomy's business interests in his Artha Graha Group following the recent fire which destroyed the Tanah Abang market in Central Jakarta; Tomy was said to have proposed to the city authorities a renovation project worth about Rp 53 billion, three months prior to the fire. The business group has in turn accused Tempo of character assassination.
Saturday's incident is not the first this year, and data from the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) shows that in this era of press freedom, intimidation and violence has increased significantly compared to the time of the New Order.
Most of the above cases were triggered by dissatisfaction with media reports. But why did they resort to intimidation and violence? Why not legal recourse? The problem is that press freedom in this transition toward democracy has not occurred together with legal reform, which has remained largely unchanged since the New Order -- with regards the laws and also the personnel.
The result is that legal action is unpopular when it comes to parties dissatisfied with press reports. Both the parties unhappy with the reports and also the press then stand to lose; while the perpetrators have almost always got away with their acts of intimidation, assault or murder of journalists. Last year 90 percent of 70 cases of intimidation and violence toward members of the press were reported to the police -- but the police hardly followed up on any of the reports.
This is where law enforcers contribute to continued violence against journalists. The absence of penalties has become an incentive for parties disappointed with the press to opt for violent means to express their dissatisfaction. The popular reaction to offensive reports has been to attack and vandalize media offices.
Moreover, in the past three years the police been most often known to assault journalists. Instead of arresting the perpetrators of violence and protecting journalists, the police have instead been party to those driving away reporters and hitting them.
Amid low public trust in the law attempts to reduce cases of violence have been far from easy. But there are at least three measures which can be taken in this regard.
First, raise solidarity within the media. Cases of violence have mostly been faced only by the media concerned or journalists; joint resistance has been rare, while this is crucial to reduce violence against the press.
This is evident in Yogyakarta, where cases of violence against journalists are quite low. This may be at least partially attributable to the strong solidarity created following the 1996 death of Bernas daily journalist Muhammad Fuad Syafrudin (Udin). Following his death Yogyakarta journalists immediately set up the ""White Kijang"" team (after the vehicle they used) to investigate the murder. The results led to heads rolling among suspected officials, though his killer remains free. Those thinking of intimidating journalists in Yogyakarta now think twice.
Second, the role of mediators such as the Press Council must be strengthened. One of its tasks is to be a mediator in disputes between the press and any party dissatisfied with reports. The Council would then impose moral sanctions on the said media following its investigation into the matter. Some think this is not enough, nevertheless the press must be regulated by the public without government interference.
The last measure would be to increase professionalism through enforcing the code of ethics among the press. Many incidents of violence and intimidation have been triggered by reports considered unfair or inaccurate.
In any case violence against the press must end as it is a threat not only to press freedom but to freedom of expression. Intimidation and violence also threaten the public's basic right to know because such cases unwittingly lead to self censorship which in turn results in distorted reports hiding possibly vital information. The public thus becomes the ultimate victim of despotism when it can no longer exercise control through the press.