For long years, the Indonesian press cowered beneath the
vengeful power of the Soeharto dictatorship. Bold writers and editors tested
the system's limits from time to time, and clever ones maneuvered around
them. But caution was the watchword. The habits of caution, however, did not
prepare Indonesia's media for the breathtaking change that followed
Soeharto's fall from power in 1998. This is something ATMAKUSUMAH
ASTRAATMADJA often points out. As head of Dr. Soetomo Press Institute, he
has labored to make press freedom a cornerstone of Indonesia's new
democratic edifice and, at the same time, to inculcate in the Indonesian
media the profound responsibilities that freedom brings.
ATMAKUSUMAH learned the fragility of press freedom early. He was a
nineteen-year-old cub reporter at Mochtar Lubis's crusading Indonesia Raya
when, in 1958, President Sukarno abruptly closed the newspaper down. After
working abroad as a radio broadcaster in Australia and Germany, ATMAKUSUMAH
returned to Indonesia in 1965, just prior to the coup d'etat that ushered in
Soeharto's New Order. Working with Lubis again from 1968, he rose to
managing editor of the revitalized Indonesia Raya. When Soeharto banned the
paper in 1974, ATMAKUSUMAH was blacklisted. Finding steady work at the
American embassy, he joined a quiet dialogue among thoughtful dissidents and
waited for better times.
In 1992, ATMAKUSUMAH joined the staff of Dr. Soetomo Press Institute, a
postgraduate training school for journalists. As executive director from
1994, he guided the Institute through the waning days of the Soeharto
dictatorship and became a spokesperson of stature in defense of a freer
press. In the courts, he testified on behalf of editors and publishers
accused of defaming the president in underground publications. And at the
Institute, he taught students to investigate, probe, evaluate, and analyze
the world around them aggressively. In time, he told them hopefully, they
would be able to practice these skills in Indonesia.
When Indonesia's new government abandoned many Soeharto-era controls after
May 1998, ATMAKUSUMAH worked assiduously behind the scenes to ensure that a
draft media bill carried no vestige of government regulation. The result is
a milestone. Passed in September 1999, the law denies government the
authority to ban, censor, or license the press or to withhold any pertinent
information. It also mandates the creation of a wholly independent national
Press Council. ATMAKUSUMAH was an architect of the council and in May 2000
he was elected its first chairman.
In the meantime, publications of all kinds proliferated in Indonesia's new
democratic space. Some were shockingly raw and sensational. Even journalists
began to wonder if an unfettered press was a good thing. ATMAKUSUMAH assured
them that, yes, it was. While acknowledging excesses, he defended the right
of publishers to violate good taste just as staunchly as the right of
reporters to investigate stories aggressively. Reining in abuses was a job
for the profession itself, he said, not government. He urged his colleagues
to submit to discipline by their peers and to adhere to a strict code of
ethics. He then helped them draft such a code. The Press Council is now
guided by it. Without a moral compass, he says, "the press is like a ship
that has lost its beacon in dense fog."
In the midst of his busy life, sixty-one-year-old ATMAKUSUMAH remains a
famously genial and dedicated teacher. As one of his colleagues says,
ATMAKUSUMAH "can't pass up a single 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," he says,
"is not yet over."
In electing ATMAKUSUMAH ASTRAATMADJA to receive the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay
Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board
of trustees recognizes his formative role in laying the institutional and
professional foundations for a new era of press freedom in Indonesia.