Change of Paradigm in Journalism

By Sirikit Syah*

Entering the 10th year of Indonesian Reformation, mass media and journalism are still in search of what’s appropriate and ideal for the practice of free press in a relatively young democratic country like Indonesia. The euphoria has passed. The watched dog, which turned wild dog (1998), has become what it should be: a watch dog. Of the five functions of the press (Press Law 1999) namely information, entertainment, education, social control, and economy; the functions of information and social control succeed the most. Information is more diverse and varied, and social control is perfect. Almost. Since some people consider it “too much”; and to some extent, violating ethical codes.

On the other hand, the news from the press is hardly entertaining (unless you like TV entertainment programs), and education is lacking, both in print and broadcast media. The most unpleasant fact is that the function of economy only happens in a certain upper level of media owners and leaders, not among journalists. While the industry is blossoming and the advertisement revenues and profits increase every year, the welfare of the press employees, particularly journalists, is under question. Bodrex or envelope journalism has become crucial problems.

In Sumenep in the far east-end of Madura Island in East Java, there are 100 journalists, many of them on state/provincial budget’s payroll, both in DPRD (Local Parliament) and in Government office (Information & Communication Section). How can a dog watches somebody who feed it? Companies like PT Gudang Garam, PT Maspion, and the likes, wouldn’t be surprised to see 200 journalists at their annual meeting of commissioners in any city in East Java. What media are these journalists representing? No one knows. No one seems to care.

Despite the clear regulation on the press employee welfare (Article 10, Press Law), media owners do not seem to care, and journalists are concerned with other matters. Envelope journalism exists because of three parties: the journalists who sell their integrity for money, the sources who buy journalists for their agendas, and the media owners who do not care. How can we eliminate the existence of envelope journalism just by punishing or condemning journalists? It takes two to tango, three with the guitar player.

Change of Paradigm

For decades we have been taught that for the press, bad news is good news and good news is not news. This makes the front page (and first segment of TV news program) are filled with blood and bodies or tragedies and conflicts. After so many violent conflicts; whether it is racial, religious, or ethnical, Johan Galtung comes with the idea of peace journalism. Journalists are no longer neutral, they take side. For Galtung and his followers (two of them are Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldryck from Reporting the World), journalists shall choose peace. It is sinful for journalist to say: “I don’t take side. I just write, take pictures, and report. I am not involved.” Journalists are indeed involved and playing roles. Even a prestigious news magazine Tempo plays some role: helping a whistle blower get a legal support. The press is no longer an observer, it participates.

It is not that easy anymore to teach students of journalism about balance, cover both sides, objectivity. Robert Fisk from the Independent, Martin Bell from the BBC, and other European journalists are very much one-sided. “Balance is not needed when the fact is clear.” When a bulldozer destroyed homes of the Palestinians and killed whoever stayed in them while bulldozed, these journalists would not bother to interview the other side to explain.

In Indonesia, cover both sides may result in more polarized conflicts. You cannot just interview GAM and TNI in Aceh, or the Christians and the Moslems in Central Sulawesi, and Freeport and the human right activists in Papua. Journalists need to interview many sides. What about interviewing Javanese immigrants in Aceh, and thousands of Freeport employees who are native Papuan and their families? Cover both sides is not enough anymore. Journalists take side, or cover many sides.

For several years now I have been teaching my students that good news is also news, and that fairness (to all sides) is more important than objectivity (which, sometimes, is not fair). In the first years of Reformation, it was objective to cover big campaigns of Golkar or PDIP. They always had these ‘magnitude’ and ‘prominence’ elements. But it was not fair to other small new parties, which also held campaigns in smaller scales and without prominent figures attending, if we did not cover them as well. I also remind my students all the time that a news story can lead even though it doesn’t bleed. Two decades ago and until recently, we kept in mind that for news, “it leads if it bleeds”.

However, Indonesian journalism, as far as I am concerned, are among the most progressive in Asia. With the Philippines’ press, Indonesian press is undergoing a democratic atmosphere. Free and responsible, a ‘dispised’ slogan so frequently uttered by former Information Minister Harmoko (under Soeharto’s New Order), is now implemented. The press is free, therefore it must be responsible. One of the consequences is that it may make mistakes, and it can be sued. During the New Order, the press was not allowed to make mistakes, it was stopped from making mistakes. No chance. The media were called to prevent mistakes from happening. So, the press actually had never learned to make mistakes. After the Reformation, understandably, our free press made a lot of mistakes: errors, ignorance, negligence, even malice. But after nine years, entering the tenth year now, we can be proud of the quality of Indonesian journalism. It is diverse, free and responsible, at last.

Of course, there are still some problems of yellow papers, pornographic tabloids, bodrex and envelope journalism, ethical violations, libels, plagiarism (especially ‘the cloning of visuals’ among TV stringers in small towns throughout Indonesia), but I would rather be optimistic. We are now in the tenth year of Reformation, and we shall be happy and hopeful with the progress and development of the press and journalism in general.

December 2010

Perihal LKM Media Watch
Mass media are watchdogs. But who watch the media? Let's do it together. Watch this very powerful entity, for better journalism, better Indonesia, better world. http://www.sirikitsyah.wordpress.com

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