In fits and starts, free press rises

Ten years ago, seasoned journalist Sirikit Syah was studying in the United States - the country Indonesians look up to as an example of press freedom and democracy, she says. O.J. Simpson was on trial, and US media coverage was approaching saturation.

"Many American people got fed up with this kind of exposure," she recalls. "And I thought, even American people can be disappointed with the media."

For Ms. Syah, it was a turning point. While studying at Syracuse University, she decided to switch from practicing journalist to media observer. She returned to Indonesia and in 1999, one year after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship and the reinstatement of press freedoms, she set up the country's first media-watch organization, LKM Media Consumers Board. But she had no illusions about the bumpy ride ahead for a press whose hands had been tied for 32 years.

"The media should be watched, otherwise it will be another dictator," she said recently while in Boston on an Eisenhower Fellowship.

In the five years since, Syah has watched the freewheeling Indonesian press and broadcast media run through some wild swings before settling down to relearn its trade. It was "chaotic," she says. "It was like another extreme" - the media thought they could write anything, broadcast anything. After decades of repression, Indonesia's newspapers and magazines often published stories that were provocative, misleading, and biased, she says. But her media-watch organization also realized that the press wasn't just putting out misinformation; it was inflaming conflicts around the country. In response, LKM Media Consumers Board stepped in and starting running workshops on "peace journalism" and conferring awards for good reporting.

In the past two years, Indonesia's media have largely found their equilibrium, she says. They recognize that being free means being responsible and accurate.

The biggest challenge now is educating the audience, she says. In the past, if an individual or organization wasn't happy with a news story, the media outlet would learn about it when its computers were vandalized or its journalists attacked. Now disapproval comes in a slew of lawsuits, many unjustified. Everyone is suing, Syah says - conglomerates, politicians, celebrities - and the amount of money awarded is threatening the existence of some publications. She calls it a "war" between the press and the public.

But it's a healthier war than that under General Suharto. Syah remembers, as a journalist, getting calls from the military about a clash between religious or ethnic groups and being told not to report on it. "They were very direct, very clear about what could not be published. We just followed to survive."

Despite major strides, the Indonesian media still have "noticeable problems," according to Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that lobbies for press freedom.

One example is the war against separatist rebels in Aceh Province, which goes largely unreported because of the military's tight grip there. One general "banned the news media from reporting what the rebels said," and "the central government in Jakarta cautioned the media against any lack of nationalism and failure to support the security forces," says Reporters Without Borders' 2004 annual report on Indonesia. Last week martial law was lifted in the province, although a state of emergency remains.

The other subject where the press holds back, Syah says, is President Megawati Sukarnoputri. "It's kind of a tradition."

But what the public misses is exposure of questionable business dealings by the president's husband, among other things, she says. The president has taken the press to court numerous times but usually loses, she adds.

"[It] is not a popular thing to do. The atmosphere is 'we are free now.' "

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