The Jakarta Post
Almost two decades ago, reformasi was our big bang in post-authoritarian politics. Among the most essential changes were the establishment of freedom of association and press freedom — which breathed life into people’s freedom of speech and opinion.
That is why every ruling regime in the reform era, from BJ Habibie to Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, promotes press freedom as a crucial part of their political platform. Press freedom has simply become the demarcation line between a democracy and dictatorship.
Introduced under Habibie, the 1999 Press Law states the press will no longer be censored. The press control agency that issued licenses for publication was buried forever. The press flourished, with its role in monitoring and criticizing authority becoming more influential than ever.
A few media outlets conducted investigative reporting, eventually leading to corruptors being dragged behind bars. Television channels were free to hold talk shows, radio broadcasts made new in-house programs and a few online media outlets now conquer the flow of information. Despite its shortcomings, Indonesia’s press can be considered the strongest, and probably the best, in Southeast Asia.
Although the role of the press is to criticize authority, press freedom is inseparable from people’s criticism. The National Resilience Council two years ago went as far as advising the President to authorize the Press Council to silence and contain rogue elements of the press, a la New Order.
Press freedom, noted the council, had been plundered by big capitalists bent on seizing the television industry and exploiting public frequency for their business and political interests. The 2014 presidential election indeed remains a major embarrassing showcase on how television tycoons, also patrons of political parties, use their media to trash political rivals.
Yet giving such authority to the Press Council will only turn it into another press controlling regime similar to the dictatorship era. Even without such a regime, our national press remains constantly under the shadows of criminalization, as evident in a number of laws.
Among others, Article 27 of the Electronic Information and Transactions Law on defamation through the internet does not directly entangle the media, but could very well be used as a weapon by any future regime that is against press freedom. In the ongoing amendment of the Criminal Code, article 329, for instance, could threaten journalists with “a maximum penalty of a five year sentence” if proved to have influenced judges’ impartiality in court cases.
In regulating press freedom, the government must consider the basic values of democracy, the state’s guarantee and protection of freedom of speech. In addition, the state must guarantee diversity of information for the public. To protect press freedom from exploitation from powerful media organizations, including the television industry which benefits from public frequency for the interest of political groups, there must be tighter regulations with harsh penalties for violators.
This is because press freedom does not belong merely to people of the press, but to every sovereign individual.