Jokowi’s “Freedom of the Press” medal: Symbol of the death of Indonesian press’ conscience

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Hersubeno Arief
Senior journalist, media and political consultant

IO – Today, for the first time in my life I broke down a personal taboo: today I wrote using the first-person pronoun, “I”. This article is my personal response to the current developments in the Indonesian press that I think have reached an anxious stage. A worrisome stage.

I have consciously selected to pursue the professional world of the press for decades (since 1989). This world has been my personal choice for a battlefield in my student days. As an Indonesian press student activist in the ‘80’s, and later as a journalist, I hold faith that the “Press” and “Freedom of the Press” are two inseparable matters. They are a symbol of the freedom of expression. Symbol of free people. Symbol of respect for common sense and truth.

The Press functions as a watchdog over power, advocacy for the downtrodden, media of education, and a host of other noble functions. Above all, its function is to maintain the sanity of the public’s mind. To ensure that the public can differentiate between right and wrong. No literature ever state that the media functions as a justification of Government policy, especially as a tool to oppress the opposition – except in totalitarian countries.

On Saturday (9/12), the official website that contains my various ideas and opinions, hersubenoarief.com, was deliberately colored black. The title was a stark white “MATINYA NURANI PERS INDONESIA” (“DEATH OF THE CONSCIENCE OF THE INDONESIAN PRESS”). The article only stated “TURUT BERDUKA ATAS ANUGERAH MEDALI KEPADA PRESIDENT JOKO WIDODO DARI DEWAN PERS INDONESIA” (“CONDOLENCES FOR THE AWARDING OF THE FREEDOM OF THE PRESS MEDAL TO PRESIDENT JOKO WIDODO BY THE INDONESIAN PRESS COUNCIL”), adorned with a single spray of white orchid.

Many responses came in, including those who specifically wrote articles about the same subject, like Bang M. Nigara, a senior whom I respect. Bang Nigara as a former Vice General Secretary of the Indonesian Journalists’ Association (Persatuan Wartawan Indonesia – “PWI”) and was much cooler in responding to the awarding of the medal. He was still able to write out an opinion article titled Mempertanyakan Netralitas Dewan Pers (“Questioning the Press Council’s Neutrality”), which contains many arguments.

I, on the other hand, could not.

I ran out of words to say.

I failed to digest and understand this phenomenon.

I could only write down a title and a note of condolences.

“How could such a thing have happened?” My common sense really could not fathom it.

My hands really could not work out the words to write.

President Jokowi was awarded with the Freedom of the Press Medal on the National Press Day (Hari Pers Nasional – “HPN”) at a celebration held in Surabaya (9/02). The medal was handed over by the Chairman of the Press Council, Yosep Adi Prasetyo, who was accompanied by HPN’s person in charge, Margiono. “We express our appreciation to the highest official of the nation, for he has never hurt the freedom of the Press in this country. Therefore, the freedom of our Press remains healthy, positive, and have a better future,” Margiono said.

A number of medias, including republika.online and kompas.com, stated that the award was given by the Press Council. However, the statement was later refuted. Stanley (as Yosep is affectionately called) explained that the award was not in fact given by his agency, but from the HPN Committee.

Ilham Bintang, Chairman of PWI’s Honorary Council, admitted his surprise that the award was given at all. PWI, as the agency that organized the event, had never discussed it. Ilham stated in his viral social media statement that there are protocols of courtesy that must be followed when either PWI or HPN wants to hand out an award. For example, PWI’s Gold Pen. It is given to Governors who have just finished out their terms of office. Once their term is completed – not while they are running the office. And that must go through a plenary session held before the relevant person. “The protocol of courtesy at HPN is also the same: all decisions are discussed in meetings. In the context of awarding the Freedom of the Press Medal to Jokowi, PWI as a stakeholder of the Press community has absolutely no knowledge or awareness of the decision to award the Freedom of the Press medal,” he said.

Ilham further stated that the Freedom of the Press Medal has once been given to former presidents Habibie and SBY, and for strong reasons. It was Habibie who expedited freedom of the Press by easing up regulations for Press and Publishing Business Permits (Surat Izin Usaha Penerbitan Pers – “SIUPP”) at the time. SBY gave the example of using the mechanism for the right to respond by responding to Kompas daily. On the other hand, there is no factual data that Jokowi has carried out any concrete act to protect the freedom of the Press.

The same protest was also stated by the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen – “AJI”). AJI General Chairman Abdul Manan said to tirto.id that freedom of the Press during Jokowi’s rule is extremely bad.

Manan did not talk through his hat. According to the standards of Reporters Without Borders, the NGO focusing on freedom of the Press issues, the condition freedom of the Press in Indonesia is quite grim: Indonesia is ranked at 124th, from the total of 180 countries. It is lower in rank even than Timor Leste at rank 95. “Lower than 100, that’s the underdog league. That’s just the bottom of the pit,” he said.

Nearing HPN, the national press milieu already had an early bad “gift” from the Government: Susrama, a (former) cadre of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan – “PDIP”) who planned the murder of Radar Bali journalist Anak Agung Gde Prabangsa, has gotten a remission. His life sentence was commuted to temporary imprisonment of at most 20 years.

In response to the protest of journalists, Minister of Justice and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly refused to review the case. He stated that it has undergone normal processing and procedures. Later on, however, the judgement was changed: the remission was revoked nearing HPN celebrations.

During the rule of Jokowi’s Government, the Press has been manipulated and coopted. Many media owners became part of the power elite. Blackouts or negative framing of news items that the Government dislikes frequently occur. The most outstanding examples of such cases as the protest held by the All Indonesian Student Executive Agencies, the protest held by thousands of contract teachers who went to the Palace, and the 212 Alumni Great Reunion. This news has disappeared from most mainstream media. A number of TV stations have also suffered from pressures to prevent them from broadcasting news or programs. For example, TV One’s most popular talk show program, Indonesia Lawyers’ Club, had several episodes that cannot be broadcast.

The latest occurrence is the lack of news coverage of the prayer recited by Kyai Maimoen Zubair (Mbah Moen). Mbah Moen was asked to pray that Jokowi gets elected as president, but he prayed that Prabowo be elected instead. As per courtesy demands, Jokowi said “Amen” for that prayer.

Nearly no television station broadcast it. This unique and extravagant news item was only broadcast by Trans-7 and TV One two days later, and by MNC Group three days later. And that was even with the requirement that the news sources are “balanced.” After that, the news item disappeared without any follow-ups.

Television journalists joke that such cases are “technical disturbance”, which is a euphemism of “pressure from the Palace” as the owners and managers of television stations get phone calls from the Palace.

Under the circumstances, it is very difficult to see how Jokowi has earned any Freedom of the Press Medal. Even if HPN still wants to award prizes, they can probably borrow a venerable Hollywood tradition: other than giving awards to best-dressed artists who attended award events like Grammy Award or Oscars, they also give out awards to worst-dressed artists. The criteria are clear already.

As my closing words, I again quote the warning given by famed New Zealand writer Lance Morcan: “Manipulating the media is akin to poisoning a nation’s water supply – it affects all of our lives in unimaginable ways.”

This is horrible. The awarding of the Freedom of the Press Medal to Jokowi by deviant HPN celebration organizers should remind us that such signs are now right before our very eyes.