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On the struggle for press freedom
Inside Indonesia - July-September 2013
Can you explain the events leading up to your arrest in March 1995? Were you aware that you were risking arrest?
The Suharto government banned Tempo, Detik and Editor in June 1994. Many of the journalists who had worked for these publications formed the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) in the August of that year. The following month we launched an illegal publication, the Independen. It aimed to provide an alternative source of information at a time when all critique of government policy was censored. In one edition, we traced the ownership of shares in print media which led to the Minister of Information at that time, Harmoko. In another, we detailed the human rights violations committed by the Suharto military regime in Aceh, Papua and East Timor.
But by the beginning of 1995 we realised our activities were being monitored. Things came to a head in March, when AJI held a large gathering in Hotel Wisata International. Among the invitees were the 'opposition' politicians Sri Bintang Pamungkas (from PPP) and Sabam Sirait (from PDI), Ali Sadikin (a former Jakarta governor who was also leading figure in Petition 50), and WS Rendra (a poet known for his opposition to the regime). Many of the political figures gave speeches and we discretely sold the Independen.
There were about 150 guests in all, mostly journalists and political activists. But some people were unknown. These strangers gathered in small groups in the corners of the room, observing the whole event. By evening, there was a rumour that AJI members were going to be arrested. Then the officers began looking for the AJI Secretary General, Santoso.
Before they could find him I helped him sneak away to a hiding place in Central Jakarta. I brought more than 1,000 copies of Independen with us, hidden in the back of Santoso's Kijang. I knew that by carrying the illegal publication I risked a ten year gaol sentence. After dropping Santoso off I continued on to the AJI office, hoping to save some important files before the police raided us. As I was on the stairs to the office, four officers from Jakarta Police intelligence grabbed me.
What were you charged with?
I was later charged under Criminal Code article 154 on public spreading of hostility and hatred toward government, punishable by seven years in prison; article 134 on defaming the President, punishable with five years in prison; article 311 on defaming government officials, punishable with two years in prison; and an article from the 1966 Press Law on abuse of press and journalist functions. These sections of the Criminal Code were abolished by the Constitutional Court after 1998, and the 1966 Press Law was later replaced by the more democratic 1999 Press Law.
I was put on trial alongside Ahmad Taufik, another journalist who worked for Independen, over a period of six months. Of course I did not believe for a second that it was a fair trial. I knew the government was secretly pressuring the judges to punish us. Ultimately Ahmad and I were sentenced to three years in prison. A sixteen-year-old office boy, Danang Kukuh, was sentenced to 18 months for helping to sell the Independen.
Were you held in the same gaol as non-political prisoners?
In the police headquarters I was detained with non-political criminals, including murderers, robbers, rapists and thieves. After being sentenced I was moved to Salemba Prison, in Central Jakarta where I stayed for a year before being moved again to Jakarta's main prison, Cipinang. At Cipinang I was placed in a political dissidents block along with some political detainees who had been charged with their involvement in G30S PKI. This is where I met East Timor's guerilla, Xanana Gusmao. My final year of imprisonment was in Cirebon, a very high security prison for high-risk criminals.
While you were in prison could you read about what was happening outside? Were you able to write?
While in prison we had the right to receive newspapers and magazines. We had a radio and could watch television (every block has its own set). For the first couple of years both Ahmad and I were still writing for several media organisations. The head of the prison disapproved of our writing, however, and ultimately decided to transfer us to the high security Cirebon prison. This prison is far away from Jakarta, so the transfer prevented us from writing and also stopped our contact with friends and family, who had been visiting us frequently.
While you were in gaol did you get any international support?
I received considerable international support, including from IFEX (Toronto), the International Federation of Journalists (Brussels), Amnesty International (UK), PEN International, Reporters Without Borders (Paris), the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the US and European Embassies. I also received letters and postcards from all over the world. The contacts I built at this time later helped me to establish my career.
After your release could you start working as a journalist again? I was arrested in March 1994 and released in September 1997, after being granted a four month remission from my three year sentence. Soon after my release, I began work for an opposition magazine, D&R, and later gained work with the Jakarta bureau of the Washington Post.
After his release my co-defendant Ahmad Taufik gained work as a journalist for Tempo and served as the first President of AJI. Now he also has a law firm which defends the rights of the marginalised. Our old office boy, Danang, is now working for Radio 68H News Agency as a researcher, having graduated from the Psychology Department of Atma Jaya University where he studied with a scholarship from AJI.
What is press freedom like in Indonesia now? Are journalists still imprisoned?
Since 1999, Indonesia has entered a new era of press freedom. The media can write anything, including criticism of the government. There are even cases where journalism has sent human rights abusers, such as military and police personnel, to prison. This was simply not possible during the New Order era.
But despite this freedom, Indonesian journalists face many obstacles. Reporters can be charged with defamation by businessmen or government officials who dislike them. Media investigations of corruption cases have lead to a high rate of violence toward journalists. Many media outlets do not have a code of conduct or adequate reportage ethics. There are still many 'envelope journalists' (who take bribes). Propaganda journalism, serving the interests of elite groups, remains common. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that about 70 percent of Indonesian journalists receive wages the same or lower than those of factory labourers. The newest challenge is the media conglomerates, who are starting to influence political parties, thereby gaining control over the state and society.
It is in this context that AJI is continuing to fight for three main principles: protecting press freedom, improving journalistic professionalism, and fighting for journalist welfare through media workers' unions. AJI advocates on behalf of journalists who have experienced violence, including overseeing the legal process through to courts. AJI has also been closely involved in the formulation of new laws, including the 1999 Press Law, the 2002 Broadcasting Law, and the formulation of Freedom of Information Act, which was before parliament from 1999 to 2008. AJI frequently holds training to improve journalist safety and ethics. Each year, we publish appropriate wage standard for journalists, and we have already inspired a number of established media firms to revise their standard closer to our benchmark.
Of course, these are all ongoing struggles that AJI's members must use their freedom to continue to campaign for over the years to come.
[Eko Maryadi (Item) (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President of the Alliance of Independent Journalists and a member of the International Federation of Journalists' executive committee.]