The just concluded Hari Pers Nasional (HPN, or the National Press Day) may have been touted as a celebration of the role of the press in a still largely democratic society like Indonesia, and, as in years past since 1985, was meant to be a meaningful occasion for the entire nation – except that not everyone, let alone some journalist groups, found any reason to celebrate it.
The choice of date, February 9, remains contentious for many, for the historical baggage that it carries.
“We do not recognize February 9 as the National Press Day. We see it as the (founding date) of the Persatuan Wartawan Indonesia (PWI, Indonesian Journalists Association),” says Abdual Manan, chairperson of the Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI, Alliance of Independent Journalists).
PWI was organized on this date in 1946. Almost four decades later, in 1985, then President Suharto signed a presidential order declaring February 9 as the National Press Day.
“Under the New Order, PWI became “a tool for controlling journalists, and was more a mouthpiece of government interests than journalists,” says Manan in a statement issued to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).
PWI was the only organization of journalists recognized by Soeharto – a fact seen by many as a ploy to control the press.
“Anyone aspiring to become a journalist had to be a member of PWI. This organisation in the Soeharto period was often used as a tool to suppress and control journalists, in order not to criticize the government,” said Media Landscapes, a project of the European Journalism Centre and the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.
Suharto dubbed his term the New Order – signaling a marked departure from his predecessor Sukarno’s regime (called the Old Order) and his policies, leading to a realignment of political forces, and the legitimization of military rule.
The former’s autocratic and brutal regime saw massive suppression of voices of dissent, including those of independent journalists and media outlets, who were outside the state-sanctioned media fold.
In a report published last year, the Jakarta Post said some quarters “consider the date [February 9] as symbolic of a non-inclusive era for the press, as Soeharto did not acknowledge other press organizations except the PWI. They believed the PWI was heavily controlled by the government, particularly during the New Order era.”
Manan says AJI has appealed to the Indonesian Press Council to change the date set for the National Press Day to May 3, the World Press Freedom Day. But there is “no official answer” just yet from the Council, he says.
The proposed change is also prompted by AJI’s take on the conduct of the HPN in the post-Suharto era.
The activities commemorating HPN “are not much different from those in the New Order era,” Manan says. He described them as “more ceremonial,” and do not address the current challenges confronting the press, namely, the threat to press freedom, professionalism issues, and its welfare.
Among the threats to media freedom and freedom of expression in Indonesia today, under President Joko Widodo’s administration, are the use of criminal laws and the Electronic Information and Transactions law to suppress dissent.
“The implementation of the HPN also does not reflect the principles of the media,” he says, because much of the funding for the activities relating to its conduct is coming from the state.
AJI, considered the first independent journalists’ association in Indonesia, was founded in 1994 by a group of intrepid journalists following the banning of independent media publications such as Tempo. Its establishment was widely seen as a bold and daring act under Suharto’s repressive New Order regime.
But while journalist associations like AJI have taken a firm stand against the annual conduct of HPN on February 9, others choose to stay out of the fray.
The Forum Jurnalis Perempuan Indonesia (FJPI, Indonesian Women Journalists Forum), for instance, respects media groups regarless of their stand on whether HPN should be observed “on the same date as PWI’s anniversary date,” says Khairiah Lubis, secretary general of FJPI.
“FJPI doesn’t want to have any conflict with any organization because of the National Press Day.”