Committee of Concerned Journalists Needed

Oleh Sirikit Syah

I won’t comment much about Bill Kovach and his book. It is much more important for us to listen to him, learn from his knowledge and wisdom. Also, it is better for the audience to understand the nine elements of journalism without any risk of distortion or misinterpretation from me.

In this good and rare occasion, I would like to express that I am impressed by the establishment of Committee of Concerned Journalists in the US. This is not just another journalists association or alliance having a mission of improving their own profession. This is not a kind of press council either, which watches the media and becomes mediator if there is any dispute or mistake.

More than that, Committee of Concerned Journalists is a group of journalists who are still in practice but have concerns on what happens to humanity –more precisely citizens, beyond their personal interests as professionals.

I noticed that criticism towards the freedom of the press in the US which is based on the First Amendment started among the US citizens in the 1990s. When the OJ Simpson case was on the news, I lived in the US, and I often heard people complaining and criticizing their media who made the OJ story as circus, and the people were not happy with it. Several years later, perhaps in 1999, Freedom Forum released a research result, saying that more than 50% US citizens considered the First Amendment was exaggerated by the press and that the press used it beyond its necessity.

When I established Lembaga Konsumen Media, a media watch organization, in 1999, I learned from the internet that there were many such media watchdogs in the US. I thought, media watch was needed only in a country in transition, a country which just had its free press (out of worry that the freedom would be misused), just like Indonesia. In several years to come, I thought, when the press became more professional and the citizens more educated, we would not need any media watch organization. I was wrong. In the US, where the press and the citizens are so advanced in education and professionalism, media watch organizations grow. Why? Because there is a tendency that mass media could be used by interests other than the public interest. Also, it is because the press and the citizens have concerns about the media product and the possibility that they have bias. Committee of Concerned Journalists is one of the manifestation of such concerns among the US citizens and journalists.

In Indonesia, many people criticize the Press Council and call it ‘impotent’ in doing its function. It is known as defending the press more than the citizens (particularly in disputes between the press and its consumers or sources). Is it because it gets donation from media industries? But members of Press Council in Indonesia are elected by the President and it is financed by the government. So, the Press Council must function stronger than they does now.

There are also some media watchdogs, but due to lacks of funding, they can’t work in their maximum capacity. There are many journalists associations in Indonesia, but they are busy strengthening their position in the industry, formulating a labor organization, a legal body to deal with people’s complaints, etc. I have never heard a journalist association shows its concern to citizens by giving sanction to its member who does wrong (violation of ethics or law). It either protects its member, or just lets it be.

What we could learn from this book is the concerns of the US journalists. Let us see our own backyard: is the freedom of the press has been implemented as it should? Have citizens gain benefit out of this freedom? I think Indonesia needs this kind of Committee of Concerned Journalists.

The Elements of Journalism

On the elements of journalism offered by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthiel, in my opinion, there is nothing new. Almost every approach of journalism surely agree with these elements, even make them standards, be it literary journalism, precision journalism, investigative journalism, or peace journalism. Loyalty to citizens has become standard, and so does discipline of verification and independence. The function of social control has been principle since centuries ago (the press as the Fourth Estate). In Indonesia, this function is included in the Press Law, and in fact, it is the most successful function among others. The press controls everything and everybody freely. On the other hand, the press fails to implement its function in giving education to citizens.

On the first responsibility of journalism is for the truth, I have question for Bill Kovach and journalists. I often see that journalists are more pro-citizens rather than pro-truth. Anything involving citizens (urban poor, vendors, workers, homeless, prostitutes, etc), they are portrayed as victims or even heroes. On the other hand, the governments are mostly portrayed as ‘tyrant’. In fact, the truth is not always like that. Often, people/citizens do something wrong (whether they realize doing it or not) and the government is right to regulate them. But the press often fails to convey this message, and therefore it fails to function in the educational aspect. In the long run, the people will benefit more in this education process rather than in the defending process by the press.

I really want to emphasize this element that the first responsibility of journalism is in truth. How does this to be implemented and how journalists respond to this?

On element of conscience, we could take a look at what is done by Martin Bell (BBC) and his fellow journalists like Robert Fisk (the Independent), who practiced Journalism of Attachment. This approach allows journalists to be subjective, and even sided. In covering unjust war, for instance, they don’t concentrate on covering both sides or seek for balance. They just follow their hearts. This element offered by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthiel makes this approach legitimate and I completely agree more on that.

The implication is on the news standard called objectivity. This must be redefined, or even eliminated. Objective is something you see clearly, not more nor less. For instance, all TV channels will be red or yellow on news of campaign and election. It is objective because that’s what people see in reality. You can’t blame the press of covering only those two parties, because they are the only ones who have a lot of money to do such parade and big campaigns. But, how about the unexposed or unseen facts? How about small parties holding small parades or campaigns in kampongs, narrow streets, and villages? According to the element of conscience –which may ignore objectivity- these small parties must be covered/reported too. In other words, this is the standard of fairness, even though it is not objective. If the choice of journalists is to implement objectivity of fairness, I suggest fairness. Give voice not only to the loudest voices, but also to the voiceless. Expose the small-scale events and non-elite people. And justice is for all.

Surabaya, 4 December 2003
JW Marriot, Book Launching “Sembilan Elemen Jurnalisme” by Bill Kovach dan Tom Rosenthiel, organized by LKM, Pantau, UK Petra, and the US Embassy in Indonesia.

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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