Bina Bektiati

The Courage to Tell a Story

I live in a country of 200 million people, ruled by the same president for more than 30 years. I live in a country of more than 10,000 islands where the majority of voices are voiceless. I live in a country that has more than 100 newspapers and magazines, and where the press jargon "free and responsible" really means "hardly free."

It means that being a journalist in Indonesia is, to quote my colleagues, like "walking in a very dark tunnel."

Although there are no guns being pointed at us by uniformed men while we are writing our stories, we are living with another kind of suppression, an intimidating atmosphere.

The government controls the press through complex written and unwritten rules. Each publication must have a license to publish, and in exchange is expected to surrender shares, as well as to put government-friendly individuals in key positions within the publication. One example is our former information minister, now the chief of parliament, who owns shares under his or his family's name in more than 50 publications.

Every Indonesian journalist is required to join the Indonesian Journalist Association.

Another form of repression has evolved through the phone-call culture. The government places warning calls to publications to instruct them not to publish articles on certain events in order to "protect" national stability.

In 1994, the closing of three publications, Tempo, Detik and Editor, was a bitter lesson for the Indonesian press - proof the press can't criticize the government. Afterwards, journalists in Indonesia were separated into two groups: "good" journalists who support the government no matter what, and "bad" journalists who try to publish balanced information, criticize the government, and fight for freedom of the press and expression.

In this way, our government has succeeded in transforming censorship into self-censorship.

We don't need warning calls anymore, and the army doesn't have to threaten anyone. We've become "good" journalists by censoring ourselves.

Self-censorship is our worst nightmare. It's very hard to be an independent journalist in Indonesia because sometimes the risk involves being fired, or put in jail. Still, there are those "bad" journalists who are taking risks, trying to survive by writing between the lines.

One way we are fighting for independence is through the Alliance of independent Journalists, formed by a group of young journalists protesting the banning of Tempo, Detik and Editor.

Although the government has banned AJI members from working in licensed publications, I'm proud to be a member.

The most important thing to remember is that some of us still believe in freedom of the press and freedom of expression as precious values for developing a democratic society. We will continue the fight for these values.

As a wise man once said, "Do not curse the darkness, light the candle."

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