Concerns emerge about press freedoms

Indonesia has been in the midst of its most free and liberal period since at least 1959, when the charismatic Sukarno - Megawati Sukarnoputri's father - dissolved parliament and ended the nation's early experiment with democracy. Sukarno, who Megawati often refers to as her political inspiration, did so because of his lack of control over the nation's politicians.

Many observers say the Indonesian establishment will swing in a more authoritarian direction under her leadership. That's mainly because of her stance toward separatism in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya, her defense of soldiers implicated in human rights abuses in East Timor, and her rare speeches in which she stresses national integrity, stability, and order.

"I'm worried," says Leo Batubara, executive director of the Indonesian Newspaper Publishers Association. "The people around Megawati have learned two things from our history: If you want to hold on to power, you have to be close to the military, and you have to control the press."

Mrs. Megawati has spent much of the past year building bridges to the military, and the media world is concerned about how she'll react when the inevitable negative coverage begins. One reason: Her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) has agreed to revive the Ministry of Information, according to Alimarwan Hana, the secretary general of one of the parties that handed Megawati the presidency yesterday.

Suharto, who ruled for 32 years after Sukarno, used the ministry to muzzle the nation's media. Publications were licensed by the ministry and could be shut down on a moment's notice if deemed to transgress their vague guidelines. Nongovernment radio news was illegal, and all television stations were either government-run or owned by Suharto's associates.

Hinca Panjaitan, a lawyer who runs the Indonesian Media Law and Policy Institute, says members of Megawati's party have been at the forefront of efforts to water down legislation that would guarantee press freedom, particularly for the broadcast media.

"Her party doesn't really care about open media, and not once has Mega talked about press freedom," Panjaitan says.

PDI-P officials say that a fledgling democracy needs ethical guidelines for the media. They argue that a largely uneducated electorate is easily manipulated by the media.

One of Panjaitan's biggest causes for concern is Megawati's close relationship with the military. Most generals blame Indonesia's current social instability - it has more than 1 million internally generated refugees from numerous conflicts - on the civil liberties introduced since Suharto's fall.

"They don't trust the people or think they're ready for a free press," Panjaitan says. "That's one of the reasons why we're worried - the army is very close to Megawati."

Harold Crouch, executive director of the International Crisis Group here, says he expects Megawati will be much less open to the press than Wahid, but will neither want nor be able to control it as did Suharto's New Order Regime. "Will she close newspapers? I don't think so."

Still, Panjaitan, who lobbies for more liberal media laws and teaches media outlets about their rights, says a creeping backlash against the media has begun, with regional bureaucrats and soldiers taking the lead.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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