The not-so-free press

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Irawan Ronodipuro INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

IO – Back in 1998, not long after the fall of Suharto, something remarkable happened.  Yunus Yosfiah, a retired Army officer serving under then-president B.J. Habibie as minister of information, decided to lift all restrictions on the media.  After three decades of self-censorship, editors and reporters from newspapers around the country suddenly found themselves in a position where they could literally print any story they wanted, even criticize the president.

  Over time, as the internet grew more pervasive and social media expanded, on-line news became more of the norm for people looking to stay abreast of the latest happenings.  With scores of new websites being launched and reporting the news, Indonesia would eventually boast having the most diverse and vibrant media landscape in the entire ASEAN region. 

  That is no longer the case.  Unfortunately, just as Indonesia has slid dramatically over the past few years in global democracy rankings, so has it shown a poorer showing in press freedom.  According to Reporters Without Borders, an international NGO that monitors press freedom, Indonesia now ranks 124th out of 144 countries it covers in its annual World Press Freedom Index.

  In its latest publication, Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, notes that “the Jakarta- based Alliance for Independent Journalists says that many reporters censor themselves because of the threat of an anti-blasphemy law and the Electronic and Information Transactions Law”, which is commonly referred to as the ITE.  Indeed, most journalists are fearful of running afoul with the government, which is precisely why there is a huge shortage of critical reporting.  Media owners, as well, are cautious in how their television news shows and publications cover politics–more often than not, they tell producers and editors that negative reporting should be avoided, mostly because they want to avoid angering the politicians who back their businesses.

  Indonesia’s political classes say they are supportive of democracy, but in practice we have seen a serious deterioration of the norms and laws that once guaranteed citizens’ freedom of expression.  And until now, very few leaders have talked openly about the need to correct the situation.  

   Exactly why Indonesia’s freedom of the press has suffered is hard to pin down.  More than likely it is because we are living in an era of democracy in decline. More and more elected leaders show disdain for civil liberties and rights.  Actions that would have once earned the scorn of other democratic leaders are now overlooked and ignored.  It is not likely to improve any time soon.

  It would be worth noting, however, that just as people around the world find their countries in a democratic recession, they also express a growing mistrust and dissatisfaction of their governments.  In fact, 2019 has been recognized as the most tumultous year since 1968– as noted by the New Yorker magazine,  “throughout the year, movements have emerged overnight, out of nowhere, unleashing public fury on a global scale– from Paris and La Paz to Prague and Port-au-Prince, Beirut to Bogota and Berlin, Catalonia to Cairo, and in Hong Kong, Harare, Santiago, Sydney, Seoul, Quito, Jakarta, Tegran, Algiers, Baghdad, Budapest, London, New Dehli, Manila and even Moscow.  Taken together, these protests reflect unprecedented political mobilization.”

  In conclusion, it is not farfetched to believe that as governments continue to take away their people’s rights, such as the freedom of expression and a free press, more and more people will finally take action and demand change.  Last year’s protests around the world might have been only the beginning.