Friday, June 30, 2006

".... It's not a gift from government!"

On June 23 Maverick had the privilege of having Ulin Ni'am Yusron visit our office for Friday's sharing session. Ulin is a journalist from the weekly publication KONTAN who is currently serving as the sub-committee head of labor union affairs in the Indonesian Journalists Alliance (AJI). As a journalist / activist, Ulin shared his views on a very interesting topic: 'Indonesian press freedom'.

"The state of the press anywhere in the world is very much affected by the country's politic," said Ulin in his opening. During Soeharto's time Indonesia had limited publication (with just around 250 print media and only 6 TV stations all over Indonesia). Everything was heavily regulated by the Soeharto regime in the form of Departemen Penerangan. The end of Soeharto era also marked the end of the SIUPP (media publication license) requirement era, which led to euphoria in the media industry. In a short time, the country had amassed around 2,000 media, but many of them later collapsed due to stiff competition and financial difficulties. Today, there are at least 30 TV stations for public to enjoy. The significant increase in the number of media has shown how easy it was for anyone to set up their own media company, although we've also witnessed how quickly they fold.

What does this mean for Indonesian public? Well, the public now has plenty of papers or TV programs to choose from. But let's not forget that there is always two sides of a coin; "the phenomena has also created irresponsible media," said Ulin.

Ulin expressed that although freedom of the press seems limitless, journalists often still face threats and intimidation; some even have been killed on the job in this era. He also mentioned a few examples including the case of Tempo magazine vs Tomy Winata and IndoPos journalists. The good news however, is that these incidents give some lessons for the media to be cautious and do their 'home-work' extensively before publishing it.

More challenges for today's media

In the Soeharto era, the press had a clear enemy, which was the government. Now the press is faced with various obstacles because it has its own war and enemies to fight. That is, if they still had the energy and courage to fight.

The first enemy is the lack of journalism skills and knowledge of the Indonesian press. With the dramatic increase in the number of media, the demand for journalists also increased. At the time when there were only around 250 media in the country, only 3,000 journalists were needed. Imagine the number of journalists needed to support 1500-2000 media! But one important question remained to be answered. How do you come up with people that meet the qualifications of good journalists within a very short period of time? As a result, the press no longer prioritizes quality but stresses more on meeting deadlines and market demand.

The second enemy is the low wages. How is it possible to expect journalists with full idealism and independence while they are constantly thinking about their next meal? Not to mention additional transportation expenses that some had to bear when covering press events. It is not surprising to see the fact of many journalists expect to receive the 'envelope' from their sources as "insurance premium" for news coverage.

The third enemy in Indonesia's press freedom is the intervention from media owners, powerful businessmen, and of course the general public. Everyone can easily sue a media or journalist for what they write. Civil laws outstrip the Press laws. Corporate players demand media to write only positive stories because they have paid much money for placing advertisement in the media.

"My role as the head of sub-committee labor union in AJI is to reinforce the journalists morale, and at the same time fight for better recognition towards journalists," said Ulin. "Journalist is also human being with social needs that need to be filled; I realize what AJI is doing is not an easy job; sometimes it happens where we have fought very hard for a media that's being intimidated by a powerful businessman, but in the middle of our fight, elements of the media "made peace" and compromise with the enemy. Not much we can do if those we intended to help, refuse to help themselves," Ulin continued his concern of the real condition.

With his team, Ulin also did a study on how 'bodrex' or bogus journalists operate. "For two months we were undercover as bodrex to see how these fake journalists enter the field and make money from there. Unfortunately due to lack of funding, the results of the study is never published.

What made the Mavericks proudly smile is when Ulin genuinely said that not all PR professionals are like the Mavs. Many of them rub the media the wrong way, such as by pushing them too much to publish a press release that perhaps contain minimal news value and that they would do anything including bribing the journalist to make it happen. "That's not the right way to reinforce a responsible journalist," he said.

Ulin expects that PR and media should understand each other's duties and responsibilities and know where to draw the line. "Let's be friends in life but when it comes to a professional area, show some respect by letting us make decision on what is news and what is not."

Two hours seemed very fast because Ulin shared his views in a very relaxed and open manner; and typical true activist: no fear!

And I still like his quote:

"We fought hard to get the freedom we enjoy today; it is not a gift from government!" (Ulin Ni'am Yusron, an Indonesian journalist activist)

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