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Free Press Flexing Its Muscles

November 29, 1998|Peter Eng | Peter Eng, a former Associated Press correspondent, has covered Southeast Asia since the mid-1980s

MANILA — For Indonesia's journalists, it's clear the revolution is unfinished. While reporting on antigovernment protests in Jakarta earlier this month, at least seven of them learned firsthand that their old foe, the military, has changed little. Although the journalists respectfully showed their IDs, the soldiers seized their cameras and beat them, witnesses said.

When Indonesia's President Suharto fell in May, press freedom took a big step forward in Southeast Asia, a region long known for tight controls and the dictum that journalists serve the powers that be. Indonesia joined Thailand and the Philippines in the free-press club, and as no ordinary member: It brought in 200 million people, 40% of the region's population. This gave journalists the opportunity to cooperate across borders. Earlier this month, they formed the Southeast Asia Press Alliance to promote press freedom.

The alliance will be busy. As the violence in Jakarta demonstrates, it will be a long road for Indonesian journalists, who face new threats in speaking up for reform. Old-style murders and new-style furtive deals plague Thailand and the Philippines, Southeast Asia's only democracies. Journalists are still severely tested in the region's other seven countries. The military government in Myanmar recently forced some publications to print articles critical of dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In Vietnam, a newspaper editor was jailed for a year for reporting on government corruption. The situation is most distressing in Malaysia, where an Indonesian-style revolution struggles to be born. Journalists fearful of losing their jobs are bending over backward to help Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resist the challenge of his former deputy, dissident Anwar Ibrahim.

In Southeast Asia, attacks on the press also are attacks on democratic movements, because journalists have played crucial roles in the movements. As in Thailand and the Philippines, journalists in Indonesia helped upend the old order by covering protest movements and by exposing human-rights abuses. Their struggle has borne fruit. In five months, the new government of President B.J. Habibie has granted more new publishing licenses than Suharto did in 32 years of rule. The Alliance of Independent Journalists, whose members once were jailed, is officially recognized.

But the Suharto bureaucracy and restrictive press laws remain in place. Accordingly, the new freedoms must be closely guarded because they may not last, says the chairman of the journalists alliance, Lukas Luwarso. He recalled that Indonesia enjoyed press freedom in the 1940s and 1960s, but both times quickly lost it. He says Habibie is adopting Suharto's tactics by proposing a licensing system for journalists and government regulation of freedom of expression.

Right-wing Muslim groups in Indonesia have shown little tolerance for the press. An association that claims to represent 20 Muslim groups is seeking criminal action against the magazine Jakarta-Jakarta, which it charges defamed their religion by quoting an ethnic Chinese woman allegedly raped during rioting in May. The woman said her attacker said he was raping her because "you are a Chinese and non-Muslim."

Such pressures will increase as journalists expose more abuses and as the authorities clamp down on students demanding that Habibie and the army chief, Gen. Wiranto, resign and that the military get out of politics. Habibie has justified the crackdown by saying he cannot carry out reforms amid the "chaos" of dissent and demonstrations. Over time, Southeast Asian rulers have modified their pretexts for restricting the press, but the message is the same: If you criticize, you subvert the national interest.

Mahathir has mastered this mind game and the occasional checkmate to ensure compliance with it. Before Anwar was sacked on Sept. 2 and then arrested on charges of corruption and sodomy, two of his allies, the editors of the leading dailies, Berita Harian (Daily News) and Utusan Malaysia (Malaysian Herald), were forced to resign. Newspapers discontinued columns written by independent-thinking commentators. The government warned reporters and editors to stifle their criticism. Journalists could try to push the limits, as Indonesian journalists did against Suharto, but most have simply given in. Before Anwar's sacking, the newspapers, all owned or controlled by government parties or associated groups, gave him favorable coverage. Now they castigate him as a rabble-rouser and sexual pervert.

The Thai and Philippine media, by contrast, are able to topple governments. But they remain vulnerable, because their security depends on other democratic institutions such as the courts.

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