In Other Words

The Triumph of Moderation

Tempo, Vol. 34, No. 29, September 12–18, Jakarta When the Indonesian Ulemas’ Council, the nation’s highest Islamic authority, issued a nonbinding fatwa against liberalism, pluralism, and secularism last summer, most observers agreed that one of the principal targets was Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL), the Liberal Islam Network. Since then, there have been numerous demonstrations and ...

Tempo, Vol. 34, No. 29, September 12–18, Jakarta

When the Indonesian Ulemas’ Council, the nation’s highest Islamic authority, issued a nonbinding fatwa against liberalism, pluralism, and secularism last summer, most observers agreed that one of the principal targets was Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL), the Liberal Islam Network. Since then, there have been numerous demonstrations and death threats against members of JIL, a loose network of scholars and activists devoted to a more tolerant form of Islam. Although the fatwa and attacks on JIL have received considerable attention in the foreign press, coverage inside Indonesia has been spotty at best.

Why have Indonesian media been so skittish about reporting on the threats against an organization committed to open religious inquiry and the continued separation of mosque and state? According to Nong Darol Mahmada, one of JIL’s founders, it’s because of fear that conservative Islamic groups might stir up violent protests. "[The media] are afraid of mass action," Nong recently said. This thought was echoed by several other young Muslim intellectuals sipping sweet bottled tea in the Tempo Café near JIL’s offices. They recalled a number of demonstrations against Indonesian publications accused of insulting Islam. Not only are these newspapers afraid of retribution from right-wing groups, they said; they are also afraid of losing money.

One exception to this news blackout has been Tempo, Indonesia’s leading weekly newsmagazine. The September 12–18 edition, for example, included a story called "Yang Liberal, Yang Dibeslah" ("Liberals and Eviction"), which reported on an angry mob’s efforts to evict JIL from Jakarta’s Utan Kayu neighborhood. The protesters claimed that JIL had "disgraced Islam," and they carried a banner calling for the blood of Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, a leading JIL intellectual. Although the group claimed to speak for the community, Tempo quoted a local official and residents who suggested that they might have been stirred up by outside provocateurs. The issue also included a strongly written column by Goenawan Mohamad, Tempo’s founding editor. His essay offered sharp criticism of those roused by "religious egoism" who seem to "feel that they represent the voice of God and the voice of Islam, although it is not clear from where they received their mandate."

Of course, such outspokenness was not always possible under President Suharto’s authoritarian regime. So, for more than 20 years, Goenawan and his editors developed a set of strategies designed to protect the magazine. Writers employed a variety of semantic devices — rhetorical questions, use of the passive voice to obscure the subject of a sentence, and a deliberate invocation of the journalistic imperative to "cover both sides" — to present independent points of view, often at considerable risk. When reporting on sensitive events, Tempo would frequently resort to statements such as, "which version is true, only God knows," to give itself an extra layer of protection.

But sometimes these strategies were not enough. In 1994, Tempo was banned, ostensibly because of a cover story on the purchase of 39 used East German warships. Although the real reason they were forced to close remains unknown (the official document stated only that the story had "disturbed national security"), most analysts agree that the cover story embarrassed the regime by reporting on infighting between government officials over the purchase price.

With Suharto’s fall in 1998, Tempo returned to publication with greater journalistic zeal than ever. Stories now openly report conflict between political elites and no longer use the elliptical language of the past. Today, party leaders and democratically elected public officials are routinely shown to be engaged in political struggle.

However, there are still grave challenges to press freedom — sometimes coming from criminal elements, sometimes from conservative Islamist groups, and sometimes from frivolous lawsuits that can have serious consequences in a legal system that is notoriously corrupt. Two years ago, Tomy Winata, a millionaire businessman with close ties to Indonesia’s political and military elite, accused three Tempo journalists of libel, defamation of character, and publishing an article that could provoke disorder. The magazine’s editor, Bambang Harymurti, was sentenced in September 2004 to one year in prison. He is currently appealing that decision and is continuing to edit the magazine while awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court.

Paradoxically, media coverage of the Tempo trial has proven to be an important means of underscoring the vital role of a free press in a democracy. It is the hope of many of the magazine’s journalists that the criminal defamation case will not only be overturned on appeal but that the decision will also become a landmark in the history of Indonesian press freedom.

Under the Suharto regime, the greatest threat to the press came from the government. That is no longer the case, as journalists now feel remarkably free to criticize public officials. Ironically, the greatest challenges to the press in Indonesia today come from the public, whether from deep-pocketed individuals, such as Tomy, or right-wing groups that threaten the media in the name of religion. All too often, these threats can have a chilling effect, making the press reluctant to take on controversial topics such as attacks on JIL. It is a credit to Tempo’s journalists that the magazine refuses to be intimidated. As Goenawan Mohamad frequently said during the Suharto years, "We can be afraid, but never surrender."

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