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Kemal Jufri - Corbis/Sygma for Asiaweek.

Freeing the Press

Atmakusumah Astraatmadja
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

For someone 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.

Jockin Arputham: International Understanding

Liang Congjie: Public Service
Jesse M. Robredo:
Government Service
Aruna Roy: Community Leadership

As publications 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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