Monday, February 09, 2009

Creativity can restore the lost soul in Indonesian journalism

Mon, 02/09/2009 5:12 PM | Headlines

Journalism today isn't what it used to be 50 or 60 years ago, and the one element that is sorely missing is its soul, says Rosihan Anwar, Indonesia's longest serving and living journalist. At 87, Rosihan was present and was reporting almost all the important turns in the modern history of Indonesia, going back as far as the independence struggle against Dutch colonialism in the late 1940s. During his career that spanned more than six decades, he has had several brushes with the law with different regimes and spent time behind bars because of his work. Still writing prolifically for several publications (I need the money, he says), Rosihan talked to The Jakarta Post's Sabam Siagian, Endy M. Bayuni and Matheos V. Messakh at his home in Menteng, Central Jakarta, in connection with National Press Day, which falls on Monday.

The Jakarta Post: How has journalism changed compared to when you started?

Rosihan Anwar: In those days, we saw ourselves as the fighting press. Now, we have a capitalist press, one dominated by big money. The family-owned newspapers that proliferated in the 1940s as part of the independence struggle are mostly gone. The few that are still around live a subsistence life, or have merged with big companies.

Can journalists do anything about it?

You can't fight the big money.

How would you characterize the fighting press?

In those days, there was solidarity among journalists, even when we competed against one another. Today, that element is missing. Journalists from the established media don't care about the fate of colleagues in other publications. Everyone is for himself. I am not being nostalgic, but in newspapers that I started, my salary as editor-in-chief was not that much more from my deputy. The spirit of socialism was there.

But didn't you have your differences with other prominent journalists then?

I was constantly fighting with B.M. Diah *founder of family-owned Merdeka daily*. I enjoyed fighting with him. But in spite of our differences, we remained true friends. We would use expletives to insult one another when we were angry, but never to the point of breaking up our friendship. The same with Mochtar Lubis. We had our political fights then, but we stayed friends to his death.

What else is missing in today's journalism?

Traditionally, the press sees itself as fighting for the interests of the oppressed, the marginalized, and in those days, we risked being sent into exile or jail. We tried to pay attention to the interests of the people.

You don't think that still exists today?

Sure, it's there. The press, for example, covered how the floods affected the people, and helped to raise the government's attention. But the press would drop the story after a few days before the problem is resolved and move on to the next story. It's the same with print and with broadcast media.

So the press has the responsibility to make sure that problems are resolved?

It's what I call the crusading press. The press has a duty to the public. You should go beyond the news.

Instead, we see a market press, one that caters to the market, and one that engages in sensationalism. Publications are more segmented into sections, one for fashion, one for sports and so on. That's tabloid journalism. When you cater to the market, you cater to the lowest taste.

So what can journalists really do?

Don't blame the journalists. They are products of the time. The key is in the hands of publishers and the editorial boards. But as long as journalism is concerned only with profit, it is losing its soul.

There are too many interest groups to cater to. That's what you get in a liberal capitalist system. The media is dictated by circulation and ratings.

How do journalists then stay relevant in this kind of environment?

Journalists must make sure they have bargaining power. At the French newspaper Le Monde, for instance, the editors could tell the publisher to stay away. "Don't touch the story," they would tell the publisher.

Journalists need to be creative and find opportunities to stay relevant.

I don't think you need to be too pessimistic about your job. But you need to be creative, and in crusading journalism, you need to be prepared to make sacrifices.

What about the environment, there is press freedom in Indonesia, right?

Our freedom is still being constrained, not so much by the government as in the past, but by pressure groups. Those thugs in white robes, for example. They are scandalous.

We need to have a free and independent press for our nation-building process. The Indian model of development, for instance, is based upon democracy, where a free press is essential. The Indian model is messy, chaotic and almost unplanned, but as the saying goes, the economy continues to grow while the government sleeps.

We must fight for the freedom of the press.

So it's not all a lost cause working as a journalist in Indonesia?

No. Realistically, profit is important. But surely as a human being, you still have your conscience, and that at times you feel the need to respond whenever you hear a cry of despair.

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