Press controls in Indonesia: mirroring the third-world?

During a recent meeting of information ministers of many nonaligned nations in Jakarta, a newspaper known for its close ties with the Indonesian Army and government published a series of cartoons.

One showed an angry figure breaking his shackles and tearing down a building. He was labeled the non-aligned countries, while the building was pictured as the advanced industrial world and Western news agencies.

Another cartoon, in surprisingly socialist style in this fiercely anticommunist country, showed a group of determined youths, surrounded by banners labeled nonaligned countries, holding in their hands spearlike fountain pens. They faced an obviously deranged reporter of the advanced industrial countries, who was churning out ''the unbalanced flow of information.''

The message both of the cartoons and of the conference was clear: The West, particularly the United States, was flooding the world with its own style of information and news. Reports on the non-aligned countries were either unbalanced or totally absent.

As a delegate at the conference said, ''The transnational news agencies represent a new and more insidious form of colonialism and the non-aligned movement must fight to change the information order in the world.''

While few would disagree that news of the industrialized world is given too much emphasis by the Western news media and important events in the third world are often ignored, there are questions about many third-world countries' ability and willingness to maintain a free flow of news and information.

One reason the US gave for its decision to pull out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) later this year was that the agency was trying to impede and politicize the flow of news in the third world.

This issue was hotly debated at the Jakarta conference, with many delegates defending UNESCO and rejecting the US charges as spurious. But the conference itself was in many ways an example of a new order of controlled information.

Both Indonesian and foreign journalists were excluded from proceedings. To a large extent all journalists were dependent on the official Indonesian news agency for information on what was going on inside the conference hall.

The news agency seemed to concentrate on the more moderate speeches but reported little on the more controversial aspects of the conference.

A speech by a Cuban delegate accusing the US of trying to manage the world's news for its own ends seems to have been ignored, while texts of the complete speech were not made available to journalists for three days. Journalists who did manage to catch delegates as they rushed from one official reception to another heard of arguments, of Iran questioning the very existence of the nonaligned movement, of splits between those who wanted confrontation with the West and those who favored cooperation.

One local paper became so frustrated with events that it made an editorial plea to the Indonesian Ministry of Information. It was ironic, it said, that there was so much one-sided information on a conference where people are discussing the problems of one-sided information.

One of Indonesia's most respected journalists, Mochtar Lubis, who has often been in trouble with the authorities for what he has written, said, ''Before we 'demand' from the developed countries, we better look at the system of news dissemination here and concentrate on giving the people a larger proportion of reliable and factual news.''

The effectiveness and freedom of news dissemination in Indonesia is a matter of widely varying opinion.

Ganis Harsono, the chief editor of the English-language Indonesian Observer, a paper that often takes mild digs at the establishment, says, ''We're completely free, but not free when it comes to mentioning names. I know the limits, and also the way things can be said . . . without actually saying them.''

He adds, ''On a Western basis I would give the Indonesian press 5 1/2 out of 10 for freedom. But that is on a Western basis and we, of course, are not Westerners, nor do we always think like Westerners.''

The government insists the press is free. The Ministry of Information says that present press laws are based on consensus and what it calls ''positive interaction'' among the government, press, and community. The law, framed in the interregnum period between the demise of President Sukarno and the rise of President Suharto, still has much of the rhetoric of earlier days about it. It states: ''The press is an instrument of the revolution, an instrument of social control, an instrument of education, a means of channeling and building public opinion and mobilizing the masses. . . .''

A new section of the press law about to be brought in states that every publishing house must have a license. The government says each newspaper and journal must show sufficient funds: This, it says, will protect journalists and ensure a decent service is given to the public.

But others see it as a move toward tighter control of the press. One journalist said, ''Under the present law the government can ban just one paper, but under the new law it can shut down a whole publishing business if it doesn't like an article in one of its journals. A publisher would certainly think twice before taking such risk.''

The government, however, insists that everything will continue to be run by consensus and when something offends, officials and press will meet and discuss it.

Held under the auspices of the Indonesian Journalists' Association, a group with close links with the ruling Golkar faction in government and to which all journalists are supposed to join, such meetings often seem to have the desired effect. In the middle of last year such a meeting was told that the government was not favorable to stories appearing in the papers about Indonesia's so-called mystery deaths, a series of extrajudicial killings which had been going on for several months. The message was understood and local reports of the killings were quietly dropped for a while. Editors themselves seem to exercise a careful policy of self-censorship.

Reports of fighting in East Timor are practically nonexistent. Religious affairs and Muslim politics are treated very carefully, as are the business associations of senior government and state officials. The government seems to have little hesitation in periodically clamping down on the press. The much-respected Tempo magazine was banned for a time during the 1982 elections, as was the Muslim journal Pelita. A magazine that recently ran a feature on the hundred richest people in Indonesia, detailing their business connections, was banned.

Publications coming into the country do not escape the government's eye either. Any hint of pornography or even immodesty is forbidden. Teams of officials pore over incoming papers and journals, blacking out any item remotely controversial.

Doubtlessly due to the ever-sensitive issue of the position of the Chinese in Indonesia, all Chinese characters even on photos and ads are blacked out.

As Indonesia's information minister, Mr. Harmoko, says, ''Each country has its own perceptions on the freedom of the press.''

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