Subject: JP: Fears of Press Control

The Jakarta Post Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Emerging Fears of Press Control

Kornelius Purba, Paris

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's serious consideration of the empowerment of the Office of the State Minister of Communications and Information has raised concerns among many parties, particularly the press.

The timing of the President's decision to put state-owned telecommunications industries under the state minister's office, which was coincidentally around National Press Day on Feb. 8, has fueled further speculation as to the President's real agenda.

Reports have been made that the President has reversed his position on the state minister's office. However, it is not unusual for the government to retract a controversial plan due to public pressure, but press ahead with it at a later date, when the public has forgotten the issue.

Is Susilo's plan purely aimed at the acceleration of the development of the country's information technology, as his aides insist, or does it reach beyond the official statement? If IT development acceleration is the only reason, why was the industry not put under the Office of the State Minister of Research and Technology? It is certainly possible that the President is sincere about empowering the communications and information office, but if the behavior of previous governments is any indication, it is not out of the question that in the future the government could be tempted to use the office as a powerful tool against opposition to it.

The fact that State Minister of Communications and Information Sofyan A. Djalil belongs to the President's inner circle only adds to the suspicion. Financial reasons for the decision have also been cited, because the blue-chip companies have reportedly become cash cows for political parties. And, the President needs funding resources other than the state budget.

Before the decision, companies such as PT Telkom were technically under the auspices of the Ministry of Transportation, but administratively also under the Office of the State Minister of State Enterprises. Many parties, particularly the media -- both print and electronic -- worry that the government is really after more effective control of the media, which continues to be hostile against the government. Perhaps such a fear is unfounded, but we should never forget that under Soeharto, until his fall in 1998, the information ministry was an effective tool for the oppression of criticism against the government.

The country's third president, Abdurrahman Wahid, scrapped the information ministry in 1999. His successor Megawati Soekarnoputri revived it in 2001, although with much less power. Since then, from time to time, efforts have been made by the government to strengthen the ministry. During the Soeharto era, the government and inner circles of power used violence and threats to silence or intimidate the press, now they use legal means against the media. With our corrupt judicial system, that lawsuits can be settled without the interference of money, is more often than not just a hope.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a string of deadly terror attacks in Indonesia, western countries, notably the United States and Australia, have reportedly been sharing sophisticated antiterror equipment with the Indonesian police, including the technology to cut in on telephone wires and even Internet communications to get information on suspected terrorists.

An employee of a multi-national company recently disclosed the company's fear that police may have tapped the company's communications lines, including the cellular phones of its executives. When they held meetings, it became standard procedure for executives to not only switch off their cell phones, but pull out the cell phone's batteries to prevent tapping. Perhaps the allegation is baseless, but it is difficult for the police to shake off their bad reputation for power abuse.

Some telecommunications experts who attended the Alcatel Forum 2005 confirmed that it is common practice -- even protected by the law -- for many governments to intercept telecommunications traffic if they feel it urgent, especially in regards to national security issues.

"It is a quite common practice (to tap telephone conversations), and the governments are protected by the law," said Brian Witt, an Alcatel expert, when asked by The Jakarta Post about such practices on Tuesday.

Any democratic country requires a free and professional media. Because Indonesia's media has only really enjoyed press freedom in the last seven years, the media has also been guilty of abusing its newfound freedom. The fast growth of the media industry has not been in accordance with the professional human resources available. Not only government officials but ordinary people have had cause to be unhappy with what has been reported by a media that thinks the truth "belongs to them". Reporting fact and slander has at times been confused. However, rather than cracking down on such practices, we need to help the media to develop and prosper.

Likewise, we should wholeheartedly support efforts to develop our IT industry as we are lagging far behind our neighbors like Malaysia and Thailand.

Paranoia is not healthy, but there is nothing wrong with keeping in mind Soeharto's brutal treatment of the press as we witness contemporary developments. After all, history tends to repeat itself.

The author is a staff writer of The Jakarta Post.

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