This week, Indonesia's parliament passed a controversial bill limiting the powers of the country's Corruption Court, which many project will weaken the fight against corruption in the country. Despite reform efforts, endemic corruption in Indonesia remains a legacy of President Suharto's 32-year reign, including in the country's media.
Though journalists have gained many freedoms since Suharto was toppled in 1998, freedom of the press remains under threat. The Criminal Code allows for criminal prosecution against journalists, namely under charges of defamation. In a well known case, in 2004 the Jakarta court sentenced Bambang Harymurti, the editor of Indonesia's weekly Tempo magazine, to a year’s imprisonment for defamation of businessman Tomy Winata. Harymurti was later acquitted.
A bill currently under consideration would subject journalists to five to 20 years in jail if convicted of publicizing a "state secret," according to the Alliance of Independent Journalists.
Last week, IJNet spoke to Indonesian journalist Juanita Wiratmaja. Wiratmaja (below right) has worked as a news reporter in Indonesia for several years at Indonesian television station SCTV. She is currently in Washington, D.C., through a one-year broadcasting fellowship at the Voice of America (VOA), a U.S. government-funded international news service.
Can you describe the situation facing journalists in Indonesia?
Compared to the past, journalists in Indonesia have more freedom. During Suharto’s presidency, the government controlled the media. The government could just crack down on any news organization. Offenses against journalists are still present, and many cases against journalists are being tried with crime laws instead of press laws.
On the other hand, I also think that freedom of press in Indonesia is intractable. The reformation era has allowed journalists to abuse their freedom of press. Many stories that journalists write are unreliable, and journalists sometimes receive bribes from their sources.
Has this affected your work?
It is difficult sometimes to remain clean and professional especially when you're surrounded by people who believe bribery is normal. Sometimes I feel hopeless to see my friends, it is just very bad.
It is normal to receive money from sources. It is normal to cover stories paid for by event organizers. The situation has worsened, especially with the low salary that a journalist receives. But thankfully, I have managed to be as professional as I can, by refusing to receive bribes and remaining as objective as I can be when covering stories.
What motivates you to remain honest?
It is more my personal belief that what goes around comes around. I have seen that happen among my friends. I believe that good things will come to good people. Before I got into this field, I was fully aware that it is rather difficult to earn lots of money, but I myself don't mind it.
Are there regulations in place to deal with bribery?
Well, yes. But once again the regulations are not enforced. Bribery regulations are actually written in our employment contract, but they are just not working. I mean, how can a supervisor ask his employees not to take a bribe if he, himself, is also receiving bribes?
Why do you think bribery is flourishing in Indonesian’s journalism?
It is the mentality in our society that allows bribery to endure for years.
What has your experience been working in a U.S. media organization?
Working with VOA has taught me many things. In the U.S., we must be very careful with what we report, because unreliable news can cost us a fortune, they can take us to court. Compared to Indonesia, the U.S. has better and more impartial law enforcement. And also bribery, obviously, is uncommon.
What do you want to achieve in your one year fellowship?
I want to improve my skills in filming, editing, scriptwriting, language and interviewing. I also want to broaden my knowledge on many issues so I can provide more dimensions in my reporting.
Do you have access to journalism training in these areas back home?
Yes. Several universities offer journalism programs or if you're a member of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, they offer many journalism training programs. However, most journalists I know don't really come from a journalism background. Therefore, a new journalist usually learns journalism as he is doing his job. Some news agencies provide journalism training for employees.
In your opinion, what must be done to improve journalism in Indonesia?
First, media ownership; though the government controls the media less than in the past, political parties in Indonesia sometimes still influence what or how the media reports. Second, we must raise journalist’s wage. Well, hopefully by doing that, it will decrease bribery in journalism.