Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Indonesia - Sex, corruption & the press: The 1950s or 2013, it’s what we do!

 “Homo homini lupus est” so goes a Latin phrase. “Man is a wolf to [his fellow] man.” For a beleaguered and much harangued head of state, his closing year of a disheartening presidency can only get worse.

Wolves at the door and traitors in the midst as turncoats and carpetbaggers seek new political patronage.

The press as the “wolf” in sheep’s clothing preying upon a flock of innocent sheep, the mental picture drawn by a man whose grey safari suit seems toned to his graying hair.

A victim — not a protagonist — of circumstance, political conspiracy involving a lewd press, decried a wallowing president as he lamented the reproach directed at him, his administration and his family.

It has not been an easy start to 2013 for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with regards to his Cabinet, his party and his family.

Once acclaimed so fervently, now rebuked so earnestly. Yudhoyono may feel a bit like Soeharto in that final period of his political demise. But Soeharto’s fall was swift and unexpected; he faced his demise with magnanimity. Yudhoyono has faced the barrage of 20 problematic months in panic and aspersion.

Soon Yudhoyono’s stature will be that of an endangered species, that rare kind of breed in the anatidae family of birds found only among mammals known commonly as the “lame duck”.

Journalists know a little something about the travails of public office. They usually come immediately after the President and politicians are blamed for society’s ills.

Centuries after the phrase was first coined, it’s still easier to shoot the messenger than to face the message.

Therefore, should we be surprised that the press is again being copiously blamed for much of the political brouhaha facing the demise of this presidency? Lecherous reporting, derogatory opinions to disclosure of secret documents. Reporters are no angels. Just as some angels fall from heaven, there are those in the media who should never have had wings in the first place. The menace of scribes and reporters well lamented through the ages, beyond borders.

“You cannot hope to bribe or twist - thank God! - the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to,” says a verse by British poet Humbert Wolfe.

The tribe of paparazzi, a foul froth to the nation of journalists. It’s no surprise that in “La-La land”, the California State Legislature in 1998 passed a law against paparazzi in the wake of Princess Diana’s death to prevent paparazzi from harrying their celebrity prey to death.

The notion of a “free press” and “responsibility” only gained a serious ideological foothold 60 years ago. One of the first in-depth concepts was the Commission on Freedom of the Press in the United States, which drew out the genesis of the social responsibility “theory” that implies a recognition by the media to perform a public service to warrant their existence.

The challenge is that in the interpretation of such “responsibility”, some go as far as hewing toward the “consensus journalism” of self-censorship to a predetermined political line.

A Hobbesian societal mold in testimony of his: “Auctoritas, non veritas, facit legem”, or “the liberty of the subject lies only in those things [...] the sovereign hath permitted”.

Yet oddly, the history of the Indonesian press has never been of prostration. The recognition that revolution and communication are tightly intertwined, a sincere belief that forgiven imprecisions can be more dangerous than confronting unpleasant truths.

Hence, rather than Hobbes’ axiom should prevail, it is one by 20th century German thinker Jürgen Habermas, who countered the 17th century English philosopher with his own: “Veritas, non auctoritas, facit legem” (Truth, not authority, makes the law).

Indonesians often look in awe at the 1950s revolutionary thinkers and grand politicians. But few remember that this bygone era was the first peak of press freedom and confrontation in the new republic.

And nowhere have we found till today the press as determined and adversarial in carrying out the role as the fourth estate.

Sadly, despite political names that are now legend, it was no less an age of massive abuse akin to present day politics. And yes, the press was again blamed.

With well over 75 newspapers in existence — about half using Bahasa Indonesia — the total circulation in the 1950s was a respectable 400,000 to 600,000 copies. The modern day Kompas are forgotten names such as Pedoman, Indonesia Raya, Harian Rakjat.

Even in these budding years of the new republic, there were already English publications — Indonesian Observer, Times of Indonesia — with a combined circulation of over 12,000.

This league of journalists with names like Mochtar Lubis, Suardi Tasrif and Rosihan Anwar were on the defense of the republic, but never once did they relent in driving home terrible truths.

Merdeka daily in 1952 highlighted the alleged kickbacks in the sale of scrap metal in Morotai, Maluku, by then economic minister Sumitro Djojohadikusumo.

The likes of Indonesia Raya, Harian Abadi, Merdeka and Pedoman were at the forefront in raising moral issues such as polygamy as president Sukarno wedded Hartini in 1954, and a suspected prostitution ring involving the “Hospitality Committee” during the Asia-Africa Conference in 1955.

Much like today, the retaliation was one of decency of the press in unveiling these accusations. Sumitro called Merdeka a “yellow newspaper”. President Sukarno called his detractors a conspiracy of the “liberal press”. Roeslan Abdulgani, the official in charge of the “hospitality” storm, accused the press of being tendentious and sensationalistic.

Sound familiar? History repeats itself.

Journalists are not heroes. They are only doing their jobs, some well and others not so well. But this nation should not be unhappy because there are no heroes; it should be unhappy that it still needs heroes. Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, The Jakarta Post

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