4 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 30 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
Jufri - Corbis/Sygma for Asiaweek.
JOSE MANUEL TESORO Jakarta
Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communications Arts
With Indonesia in the throes of transition, he has helped transform
the press into one of the region's most liberal
who has devoted much of his life to the independence of the press, it might
seem a little odd that Atmakusumah Astraatmadja's first job in journalism
lasted less than a year. But that is the point entirely. What happened then
was to shape his attitudes for good. Nineteen years old and fresh out of
school, he joined writer Mochtar Lubis's crusading newspaper Indonesia Raya
in early 1958. That same year, president Sukarno shut the paper down and
Lubis was imprisoned one of the first signs that Indonesia's chaotic
period of multiparty politics was giving way to one-man rule.
When Gen. Suharto edged out Sukarno, Lubis was released from jail and Indonesia
Raya was reborn in 1968. Atmakusumah became its managing editor. The paper
lasted until 1974, when Suharto, in the wake of student demonstrations,
banned it, along with 10 other newspapers and one magazine. Hopes for press
freedom in Indonesia were destroyed. "Suharto gave freedom only to those
who supported his policies," says Atmakusumah, now 61 and executive director
of the Dr. Sutomo Press Institute, which trains journalists and public-relations
officers. Atmakusumah got a taste of Suharto's methods after the closure
of Indonesia Raya, when he and a number of other senior journalists found
themselves blacklisted by the government and refused permission to work
in the media. For the next 18 years, he was employed by the U.S. Information
Service in Jakarta, sometimes writing pieces for local publications under
the pen name of Ramakresna created from putting together his two
children's names. More often, he would speak at lectures and seminars, invited
by students and activists. He had only one subject in his repertoire: "Freedom
of press, freedom of expression. That's the only knowledge I have." In the
mid-1990s, Atmakusumah testified as an expert witness in the defense of
three members of the Alliance of Independent Journalists arrested for distributing
unlicensed publications. He could not save them from being jailed.
When Suharto was swept from power in May 1998 and many of his controls disappeared,
Atmakusumah worked assiduously behind the scenes to ensure that a draft
media bill carried no vestige of the old regulations. The result is a milestone,
transforming the press in Indonesia from one of the most oppressed in Southeast
Asia to one of the most liberal, on a par with that of the Philippines and
Thailand and considerably freer than that in Malaysia and Singapore. Passed
in September 1999, the law denies the government the authority to ban, censor
or license the press or to withhold any pertinent information. It also mandates
the creation of an independent national Press Council. Atmakusumah was the
architect of the council and in March was elected its first chairman.
of all kinds have proliferated in Indonesia's new democratic space, some
have proved shockingly raw and sensational. Even journalists have wondered
if an unfettered press is a good thing. Atmakusumah assures them it is.
While acknowledging excesses, he defends the right of publishers to violate
good taste just as staunchly as he does the right of reporters to investigate
stories aggressively. Reining in abuses is a job for the profession, not
the government, he says. Atmakusumah urges the press to adhere to a strict
code of ethics and to submit itself to discipline by peers and citizens.
Without a moral compass, he says, "the press is like a ship that has lost
its beacon in dense fog."
In the midst of a busy life, Atmakusumah remains a famously genial and dedicated
teacher. One of his colleagues says: "He can't pass up a conversation with
a young journalist." As for the future, he is sober. His country remains
in the throes of a tumultuous political transition. "The struggle for media
freedom is not yet over," he says. In awarding Atmakusumah the 2000 Ramon
Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communications
Arts, the board of trustees praises his role in laying the institutional
and professional foundations for a new era of press freedom in Indonesia.
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November 30, 2000