On Thursday, the country commemorated its 66th National Press Day with a ceremony that was attended by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. As free, critical press is essential to any healthy democracy, this is a good moment to ask ourselves: where does Indonesia stand?
In the latest issue of its Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based global media watchdog, indicates that Indonesia is one of the world’s worst places for the press to operate in because of alarming rates of repression suffered by journalists.
In the current index, Indonesia dropped to 146th position from its 2011 standing of 117th. This means that press freedom in Indonesia today is under severe threat and worse than in countries like the Philippines (ranked 140th), Russia (142), Swaziland (144) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (145) and equals that of Malawi.
Not surprisingly, in the Democracy Index published last year by The Economist, Indonesia was ranked 60th, below South Africa (28), Thailand (58) and even East Timor (42).
Sources have said that Yudhoyono seemed alarmed when told that Indonesia’s democracy index was lower than East Timor’s but he has done little to improve the situation.
To be fair, not even the president would be able to remedy a culture so corrupt as ours. The Reformasi that began in 1998 only reformed the structure of the state and not the culture of bureaucracy, let alone wider society.
The very reason that former reformists cited to topple strongman Suharto now makes up an integral part of their culture, behavior and lifestyle: endemic corruption that spreads alarmingly from the central government down to provinces and districts.
This is a culture in which almost every big shot is corrupt but diligently crying out against corruption. A cynic would say that the only difference between many a political figure and the vilified corruptors is that the latter ones aren’t smart enough to avoid getting caught. We are living in a country where hypocrites often portray themselves as very serious people in promoting democracy and human rights.
Part of the reason why democracy and press freedom indexes paint so bad a picture is the absence of respect for the role of mass media, the absence of serious protection for minority groups and a lack of decisiveness on the part of the national leadership in upholding law and order.
In terms of press freedom, there is a strange paradox going on in Indonesia. On the one hand, more and more people are using the press to freely express their views, but on the other, crimes against journalists have risen sharply.
In 2010, according to the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), 66 crimes against journalists were reported. In 2011 the number climbed to 94 and is likely to soar further between now and 2014 as political parties prepare to contest legislative and presidential elections.
Such elections are bound to involve money politics and abuse of power, which will attract mass media attention and become a reason for vested interest groups or individuals to take harsh actions against journalists, as is usually the case.
According to a study by the Legal Aid Foundation for the Press (LBH Pres), most of the crimes against the free press are by members of the state apparatus, including security officers from Aceh to Papua. Journalists have been killed, others have been seriously wounded, and many more have suffered material losses. Recently, the child of a journalist died after their home was attacked by a mob.
Ironically, this happens in an era where the nation boasts it is the world’s third-largest democracy, after India and the United States.
According to various opinion polls over the past 12 months, mass media is the only pillar that still has the people’s trust throughout the country. The executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government are the least trusted institutions.
Up to 70 percent of the House of Representatives is corrupt, according to its own speaker. Senior members of the ruling Democratic Party are currently in deep legal trouble. And since 2004, when it took power, the party has failed to become a political role model.
The only hope today lies within the mass media as a control mechanism. A free press is needed to create a law-abiding civil society and stimulate a culture of justice, fairness and good governance.
But to say that the Indonesian press today is the best objective watchdog for democracy is perhaps an overstatement.
It is true that there is no more banning of publications today and that establishing a media outlet is just like building any other business institution: one needs a business license and must abide by the law.
But in making a fair judgement on objectivity of reporting, one needs to take into account the plain fact that the Indonesian mass media face tough competition.
This is why, in his address prepared for the audience at a National Press Day seminar in Jambi, Regional Representatives Council (DPD) chairman Irman Gusman stressed that journalists must uphold integrity and objectivity because they form public opinion and behavior.
Irman also said he appreciated the vast growth of “local press” (newspapers and magazines published in provincial towns) that indicates that the press is now more down-to-earth than ever before and is closer to people at the grass-roots level.
A lot more people now benefit from a free flow of information, which is conducive to enhancing economic growth in the regions.
In an era where business empires are the owners of major mass media organizations, perhaps one good way to promote the objectivity of those shaping public opinion is to encourage the growth of citizen journalism to the extent that it be officially accepted as a sibling of the news media: a voice that needs to be heard. Growth in the area could contribute to balancing the flow of information and views that influence society day by day.
So, while we commemorate National Press Day, it is necessary to set a date for celebrating what may be called “Citizen Journalism Day.”
Likewise, official acknowledgement must be given to the fast growth of self-funded social media enterprises and their operators who have contributed a great deal in spreading information instantly to society.
Installation of higher bandwidth Internet facilities across the country must be high on the government’s agenda. The private sector must also be better facilitated to support this endeavor, which will open up new economic opportunities for millions of Indonesians.
Empowerment of this particular sector of information technology has yet to become a government priority, but it is here that millions of jobs and business opportunities will emerge due to its potential for generating various creative industries.
National Press Day does not mean much to ordinary people. But it would mean a lot if the government used this moment to take the lead in stimulating the growth of bottom-up media outlets that are bound to benefit millions.
Pitan Daslani is a political correspondent for BeritaSatu Media Holdings.