By : Sirikit Syah, Media Watch Activist

Freedom of the Press

The meaning of freedom of the press might only be understood by the press people. Even worse, it might only be considered important by press people. What has freedom of the press got to do with the public, anyway? This forum is trying to answer the question.

Most press people in Indonesia know the word from the US Bill of Rights, which, among the 10 amandments, says that there must be a freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and there must not be any regulation against it.

So, it is only logical that the US press seems to be so free. Their freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution. In Indonesia, it is different. In the past (Orde Baru regime), the concept was taboo. The press was widely controlled by the government, through so many laws and regulations. Even then, it was not valid for journalist to fight for free press, since it was never mentioned in our constitution. Nothing guaranteed the freedom of the press in our country. In fact, the philosophy of “be free and responsible” was a good one, if only the government (Minister of Information, in this case) didn’t abuse it by oppressing the press to be responsible and not letting them to be free.

However, now we get our freedom. The freedom of the press in Indonesia is guaranteed by UU RI 40/99 on Press. The highlights of the law are the guarantee of free
access of information (meaning, the government must be open to press), and the right to reply. The first is for the press, and the second is for its public. It sounds fair, doesn’t it?

In an international seminar on Freedom of The Press, Censorship, and Human Rights, held in Oxford recently, many people agreed that Indonesian Press Law was among the best in the world. Even in the UK, there is no right to reply (if the press publish the public’s reply, it is good, if not, there is no punishment). In Malaysia and Singapore, the press is controlled by the government. In Serbia, the law is against free press. In Sierra Leone, there is practically no press (the press is only government’s releases).

So, what is freedom of the press? In my opinion, based on my experience as journalist and media watch activist, freedom of the press means the press which is free to access information, free to publish and distribute information, without violating professional and ethical standard, law & regulation, and other people’s rights. The right of the press is not above the people’s rights.

Freedom of Information as Human’s Right

The basic value of freedom of the press actually is freedom of expression and freedom of information. Both are among basic human rights. It is important to understand that freedom of expression is not the press’ privilege, but it is especially for public. So, the people’s voice must be heard by the government, and also to be published and distributed by the press. From then on, the voice could be considered.

Freedom of information is also for the public, on top of for the press’ sake. In this case, people must be allowed to gain any information that the government hold. The excuse of nation security and secrecy must not be used in all cases. If we want to know the names of “provocators” whom they told had been captured, the government must release the names. If somebody wants to track the whereabouts of his relative that had been kidnapped by the military/government years before, the government must give him the information. We also have the right to know who attacks whom.

Freedom of information could prevent conflicts and wars. Reconciliation could also be gained by discovering the truth, no matter how painful it is. In some way, truth might be harmful and disclosure might create negative impact. But in the long run, as a process, it will end up in reconciliation based on understanding. After the disclosure of truth, then, people might decide to forgive and or to forget. And they can heal the wounds, and together as a nation, they build a new beginning.

Why Media Watch (the significance of media watch)

When it was launched in March, 1999, many people were sceptical, even cynical towards media watch organization. On top of that, this is a non-favourable activity in the eyes of international fund providers. These international fund providers were in honeymoon with the free press. Media watch was seen as a possible obstcale in building a free-press-based democratic society.

The idea of a media watch organization was to educate people. In a better educated society, free press would never be a matter. But in a newly democratic country like Indonesia, which education level and law awareness among the people are low, free press could become a nightmare. It could even create chaos.

The mission of media watch is to prepare grass root people and young generation to understand free press, to encourage them to participate in it, to empower them to be equal with the press, to be mature and responsible in experiencing free press. Hopefully, there are no more mass pressure groups that threaten or attack media companies or journalists in physical or psychological terrors. The press could be seen as the most powerful entity in any society. But as we disagree to government absolute power, we also disagree with the press absolute power (especially if they have their own agendas and very influential to people). Power tends to corrupt and powerful media corrupts severely. Last but not least, we must prevent the mass from being another absolute power.

Media watch organization observes mass media, especially if there is any violation towards media ethics, laws, regulations, norms. The results of the observation & research are sent back to media companies as feedback and input. Media watch organization doesn’t have power to punish the media, but their existence is guaranteed by the new Press law (Article 17), and their report is considered by the National Press Council.

Even though we have no law pressure, mass media companies are expected to be ashamed if their faults are published (in our bulletins) and distributed among their collegues and consumers/public, or broadcasted via our weekly radio interactive program. It’s a moral pressure.

In the end, media watch organization is taking part as a mediator between the media and its public, so there will be more understanding and equality between them, a very important point in building democracy.

Presented at the Course for Indonesian NGOs held by The British Council Surabaya
1st of March, 2000


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.

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