Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Nezar Patria: Juggling ownership and press freedom

Matheos Viktor Messakh , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Mon, 05/04/2009 2:07 PM | People

JP/Matheos V. MessakhJP/Matheos V. Messakh

Nezar Patria wanted to be a journalist since junior high school, even though it went against the wishes of his father, veteran journalist Syamsul Kahar.

"Although my father is a journalist, who co-founded Serambi Indonesia newspaper in Banda Aceh, he never encouraged me to be a journalist. There was always a reason for his objections," he told The Jakarta Post recently.

But despite his love for journalism, there was a time Nezar lost all hope for it, tossing aside his ambition because he thought that being a journalist would not lead to anything positive.

"As a student activist I learned that there is no press freedom, so my priority was to bring the then dictatorship to an end," said Nezar, who was elected as chairman of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) in January.

Born in Sigli, Aceh, on Oct. 5, 1970, Nezar spent one year studying agriculture at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh. He then went on to study philosophy at Gadjah Mada University, where he was active in various organizations including the controversial Solidarity of Indonesian Students for Democracy (SMID).

Nezar, who co-founded SMID in 1992, said the organization was established to give students a forum to fight for their rights, as student organizations had been hijacked by the government.

After the Democratic People's Party (PRD) was accused by the New Order regime of engineering the riot of July 27, 1996, SMID, as an allied student organization, was also blamed and its members found themselves on the run.

Nezar was secretary-general of SMID at the time. On March 13, 1998, Nezar and two other SMID members, Mugiyanto and Aan Rusdyanto, were forcibly taken by the military from their cheap apartment block in Klender; they were tortured and interrogated for three days before they were handed over to the Jakarta Police.

He was held until June so he could only hear the roaring of the May 1998 political upheaval from his cell.

"I noticed that the police were very busy and when I vaguely heard the song *Gugur Bunga' *Flower Fall* from behind the bars I knew that students had died," he said. "I felt so sad that I could not be out there with my friends."

After being released by the police, Nezar became a volunteer for the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) to help find some activists that were still missing. He also helped established Kontras Aceh.

"I have overcome my trauma of being kidnapped but I still have a kind of bad dream about my friends who were kidnapped and never returned," he said. "Every time I see any news about them, I always feel uneasy."

Nevertheless, Nezar, whom former SMID colleague Coen Hussein Pontoh described as a "highly skilled theoretician and organizer who talks little", adding that "in his hands the SMID was run well", recovered his dream to be a journalist.

When other 1998 activists joined political parties or went into the civil service, Nezar decided to become a journalist. In 2000, he joined Tempo magazine.

The father of three agreed he built his career with the magazine relatively quickly, but said he never used his fame as an activist to climb the newsroom hierarchy.

"It has been fast but I have been through all the positions that a journalist should have. I started as a cadet reporter, reporter and then editor."

In May 2008, he and some of his fellow Tempo journalists founded www.vivanews.com, a website under tycoon and politician Aburizal Bakrie.

His decision to work with the tycoon sparked criticism among journalists and the pro-democracy movement. Some regarded it as a backward movement but Nezar, who won the International Federation of Journalists' Journalism for Tolerance Award in 2003 for his report on the May 1998 riot, titled "The Razing of Jakarta", has his own argument.

"It's a professional world and I want to prove that I am a professional journalist," he said. "It is an uncontested fact in the media industry that we will always work with businesspeople. Wherever you go, you will always come across the problem of ownership."

He might once have been an advocate of social democratic ideologies, but now argues that the best journalists can do is to admit they are living in the world of the capitalist media industry whose main aim is profit.

With this awareness on the capitalist environment, a journalist will know how to deal with media ownership, which has been described as one of the obstacles in the development of press freedom.

Nezar believes journalists should make themselves credible and professional in the eyes of media owners, which will help them to negotiate with the owners over independence.

"If you want to create a credible press, you should tell the owners right from the beginning that you want independence. I did have that guarantee," he said. "I realize that there is no total independence and the owners always want to intervene, but the space for negotiation should always be open."

He added that media owners should be told that by intervening in the newsroom, they have started to kill their own business.

His decision to quit Tempo to work for an online media outlet was partly due to his experiences while doing a Ph.D. in international history at the London School of Economics, which he completed in 2007.

"On the Internet we can find quality journalism. I am big fan of The Guardian newspaper but I never bought a copy of it because it available on the Internet," he said.

"It's strange that being fast seems to be an absolute necessity for online media in Indonesia, but at the same time they sacrifice quality. Online media could become the very first to provide news and information without sacrificing quality."

Nezar, who was AJI secretary-general from 2002 to 2005, said the Indonesian press had been enjoying better freedom since the 1998 political reform but remained under threat.

Among the problems he cites are that some laws continue to threaten press freedom, the court remains ambivalent about whether a media case is a civil or criminal matter, and the public - and even journalist associations - are divided over the meaning of press freedom.

"The threats of violence that became a trend during the early years of political reform are decreasing but the systematic effort by the powerful to reduce press freedom is increasing," he said.

As the chairman of the AJI, Nezar said it was time to bridge the gap of perception about press freedom among the public, the state and even journalists.

He said that although journalists should not enjoy special privileges as citizens, the profession is related to the public interest and should be protected by special laws in order to uphold democracy.

"Press freedom is not only for the benefit of the media or journalists," he said.

"It's part of the freedom of expression, which is a basic right for the people. It is not only journalists who will suffer, but the public also will suffer if it is neglected.

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