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Jakarta Post

'Reformasi total': Lessons from Indonesia on media reform

  • Janet Steele
    Janet Steele

    Associate professor of journalism at the George Washington University

Washington, D.C.   /   Mon, July 23, 2018   /   11:21 am
'Reformasi total': Lessons from Indonesia on media reform Malaysia's newly-elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad addresses civil servants from the Prime Minister's office during his first assembly in Putrajaya on May 21, 2018. (AFP/Manan Vatsyayana)

Ever since the astonishing results of the 14th General Election in Malaysia, I have felt a strong sense of déjà vu. I was in Jakarta working as a Fulbright professor on May 21, 1998, the day that Soeharto was forced to step down after 32 years of authoritarian rule. On May 9, 2018, I was on the other side of the world in Washington DC, but I was still able to follow the results live on Malaysiakini.

In some ways, the Malaysian election was an even more remarkable achievement than what I’d witnessed in Indonesia 20 years earlier. A change of government, after more than 60 years of one-party rule, and not one drop of bloodshed! But now the hard work begins. As happy as I was at the outcome of the election, I was also worried. Will Malaysia take the steps necessary to secure the most important reform of all - freedom of the press?

If I have learned one thing from following press developments in Indonesia and Malaysia for the past 20 years, it is this: all reforms follow from press freedom, and journalists themselves must take the lead in demanding it. If anything secured the transition to democracy in Indonesia, it was the 1999 Press Law, which was drafted and passed largely because of how journalists kept up the pressure on the new government.

So far, the new Pakatan Harapan government has been saying the right things about freedom of the press. Even before the election, PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail promised that if the coalition won, it would review all laws and regulations restricting the media. DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng likewise guaranteed that Harapan would “set up a media council comprising media figures, which will be responsible for developing and implementing a code of ethics on reporting and act as an ombudsman for public complaints.”

It is encouraging to see that new Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo has said that the government will create a media council, and heartening that media organizations such as the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) have reminded Harapan that it needs to keep its word.

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and Institute of Journalists Malaysia (IOJ) have also spoken up, chiding the new prime minister that it is not enough to “redefine” the Anti-Fake-News Bill, but that it must be repealed altogether - along with other laws that repress media freedom, including the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act.

These are all good signs, but journalists need to do more than issue statements. As the IOJ itself has pointed out, “While we laud the swift move by the new government to reiterate its commitment for press freedom and also push for the formation of a media council, we would like to remind and urge the ministry that any such proposal should be drawn up with active consultation with the stakeholders, including media groups.”

The day after Soeharto’s fall

It has always been obvious to Indonesian journalists that most of what Indonesia has achieved since the fall of Soeharto would not have been possible without a free press.

Journalists have informed the public of the content of repressive draft laws. They have uncovered scandals, reported on the theft of public money, and fact-checked what is said by politicians and candidates for public office. They have published details of crimes committed by those who were previously untouchable – even Tommy Soeharto, who in 2002 was convicted of masterminding the murder of the judge who had sentenced him to prison for corruption.     

But how was all of this achieved?  Beginning with the resignation of Soeharto in May 1998, Indonesian journalists wasted no time in pressing the new government for reform. One day after Soeharto’s resignation, the still-outlawed Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) circulated a list of demands that they considered essential to press freedom. AJI had been founded in 1994 in response not only to the banning of Tempo, Editor and Detik, but also to the tepid reaction of the state-sanctioned Indonesian Journalists’ Association, or PWI, which had stated that it could “understand” the banning of the three magazines.

In his inaugural speech on May 23, the new Indonesian Minister of Information, Lieutenant General Muhammad Yunus Yosfiah, promised that he would support journalists in their profession. Unconvinced that he would keep this promise, a group of journalists led by AJI activist Roy Tumpal Pakpahan demonstrated in front of the Department of Information on May 28, and demanded to meet the new minister. To their astonishment, they were admitted to his reception room. Veteran journalist Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, who had been blacklisted from working in journalism after the 1974 banning of Mochtar Lubis’s newspaper Indonesia Raya, recalled what happened next. “So Roy read the 10 demands,” he said. “And when Yunus answered Roy’s speech, he said ‘I agree with all of them.’”

One week later, Yunus fulfilled the promise he had made and annulled the 1984 regulations signed by Harmoko. Stating that a review of the Press Law would take time because it had to involve the legislative assembly, he nevertheless removed many of the more restrictive rules that had been used to shackle the press. The minister further announced that the PWI would no longer be the sole body allowed to represent journalists, and that the government had no objection to journalists joining AJI, or indeed any other organization. And finally he confirmed that publishers who had lost their licenses under Soeharto should simply apply for a new one. The most important of AJI’s demands had been met. The press community moved quickly to take advantage of the changes, while at the same time keeping pressure on the government to remove remaining restraints and institutionalize new freedoms. As Eros Djarot, the editor of the banned tabloid Detik said, “I trust Yunus’ commitment to press freedom. But he is not going to be minister for thirty years. What will happen to the press if subsequent ministers are like Harmoko?”

In July 1998—in a complete reversal of the usual way of doing things —the Department of Information began to work with journalists on drawing up a new Press Law. Atmakusumah was invited to join these discussions, and he remembers them as being quite heated. There were many contentious issues, including whether a code of ethics should be included in the law, whether it would be compulsory to require media companies to set aside shares for journalists, and whether the government should set standards of journalistic competence.

At a meeting with the Newspaper Publishers’ Association (SPS) on July 10, President Habibie suggested that journalists be required to get “renewable licenses” in order to maintain high standards of professionalism.  PWI Secretary General Parni Hadi, who was known to be a close advisor to the president on media matters, explained that in Habibie’s view, the license would be like that required by the medical profession, valid for one year, but subject to revocation if the journalist was regarded as unprofessional or unqualified. The reaction to the president’s proposal was swift. Goenawan Mohamad, the former editor of Tempo, called it “pathetic” and “a major setback.” Pointing out that journalism—unlike medicine—was an open profession, he said that editors are the ones who should be responsible for the quality of journalism.

By September 1998, the battle lines were clear; journalists had to force the Habibie government to keep its promises of reform, and they had to be ever-vigilant against possible backsliding. In October, a group of journalists, activists and press organizations created a new association; the Indonesian Press Society or MPI, which drew up its own draft press law. As Leo Batubara of the Newspaper Publishers’ Association (SPS) pointed out, the government’s version of the law (Draft 8) still had thirteen articles that would empower the government to control the media through regulation. It was like giving the government a “blank check,” he said.

Apparently others in the Ministry of Information were also unhappy with the draft law as it was, and in early November Minister Yunus quietly asked UNESCO for assistance. One of UNESCO’s partners in the promotion of freedom of the press is ARTICLE 19, an inter-governmental organization devoted to defending and promoting freedom of expression and access to information as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Toby Mendel of ARTICLE 19 explained, “the Minister realized that they simply did not have the capacity to take it forward (that is, they did not know how to draft a democratic press law).”  According to Mendel, this was the first time that UNESCO had provided actual drafting assistance for a law affecting freedom of expression. Once the draft press bill was complete, it was sent to the State Secretariat for study. Meanwhile, journalists’ organizations began to hold a series of seminars, hearings, and programs to “socialize” the public about the new law.

On March 23 to April 4, an important seminar, titled “Media and Government in Search of Solutions,” took place in Jakarta. The program was officially opened by President Habibie at the State Palace. The first speaker was Tempo magazine founder Goenawan Mohamad, who pointed out that the riots and violence of the preceding year could have been avoided if there had been more openness and information. “If there is a place for honest dialogue, a source of reliable information, a source to counter the poisonous rumors, then the free media can play its social role and obligations,” he said.

In August 1999, the DPR began its deliberations on the bill. Information Minister Yunus appeared twice before the DPR on August 26 and 27 to defend and explain the government’s view of the bill, and in doing so demonstrated a firm command of both the particulars and the larger issues at stake. But it was not the minister’s articulate defense of freedom of the press that impressed the press community, rather it was his willingness to let journalists themselves testify before the DPR. It was a heady day for Indonesian journalism when Atmakusumah Astraatmadja and Leo Batubara—two great lions of press freedom—appeared in Parliament as “government experts,” defending a Press Law that they themselves had been involved in drafting.

The DPR passed the bill on September 13, 1999 and ten days later President Habibie signed it into law. As Atmakusumah wrote in D&R magazine, it was a law that had been 255 exhausting years in the making. Based on the fundamental principles of freedom of expression and the right to gather and disseminate information, the 1999 Press Law guaranteed freedom of the press, eliminated licensing as a means of controlling the press, removed the government’s ability to ban publications, and limited the power of the government to introduce subsequent regulations. It also removed restrictions on who might practice journalism, and guaranteed the rights of journalists to join associations of their own choice, to seek, acquire, and disseminate ideas and information, to be free of censorship, and to refuse to divulge the names of their sources. Significantly, for the first time it provided penalties of fines or imprisonment for those who attempted to restrict press freedom rather than the reverse and it allowed for self-regulation of the press through the establishment of an independent press council. It was hard not to agree with Tempo when it concluded, “If this law is truly applied as it is written, the Indonesian press is going to experience an era as sweet as honey.”

Despite the “masterpiece” of the 1999 Press Law, Indonesian journalists today still face a number of serious challenges—most notably from the defamation provisions of the Criminal Code (KUHP) that are at odds with the Press Law. The Criminal Code contains at least 40 clauses that can be used against journalists. Although the independent Press Council (created by the 1999 Press Law) is supposed to adjudicate in media disputes, authorities continue to undermine its mandate by bringing defamation charges to the courts. And despite a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that the 1999 Press Law should be used in all cases involving the press, the Criminal Code continues to be used to file defamation cases against journalists and others.  Although interference from the government has ended, Indonesian journalists continue to face threats and intimidation from the public. Being perceived as “insulting religion” is especially dangerous; as Atmakusumah Astraatmadja has pointed out, it is extremely difficult to reach consensus on this topic even in the Press Council.

Although there will always be a variety of opinions as to who deserves credit for the passage of the landmark 1999 Press Law, it was ultimately Indonesian journalists -- and the students and civil society groups that backed them -- who kept up the political pressure that led to the institutionalization of press freedom. As Atmakusumah put it, the initiative came from Yunus and the context from Habibie, but the movement came from the Indonesian people. “The atmosphere, the euphoria pushed all sides to support the movement,” he said, “and it was they who pushed the DPR to create the new law.”

As the events of the 2011 Arab Spring have demonstrated, without an independent press a democratic revolution can be neither secure nor complete. In Indonesia, it was an unlikely coalition of journalists, old-school political elites, and forward-looking civil society groups that led to the historic passage of the 1999 Press Law, and paved the way to real and lasting reform. Malaysia, which is far more developed and advanced economically than Indonesia was twenty years ago, could nevertheless learn a great deal from Indonesian journalists’ insistence on reformasi total, beginning with a strong law that institutionalized press freedom.

Will journalists in Malaysia take the lead in demanding the legislation necessary to secure this most important reform of all?  It remains to be seen.


Janet Steele is an associate professor of journalism at the George Washington University and the director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. She received her Ph.D. in History from the Johns Hopkins University and focuses on how culture is communicated through the mass media.


This article was previously published on MalaysiaKini. The Jakarta Post republished the article with permission from author Janet Steele.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.