Indonesia’s refusal to extend the visa of a high-profile foreign correspondent has led to concerns that recently won press freedoms are endangered. Lindsay Murdoch, who has covered Indonesia for three years on behalf of Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, says he was told that two of his “human rights” news reports led to the ban: one about the kidnapping of East Timorese children by a Jakarta-based foundation, and one that described Indonesian soldiers killing a 4-month-old child in Aceh by pouring boiling water on him. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post concluded, “Given the topics involved, analysts believe the armed forces had a hand in bringing about Murdoch’s expulsion.”
The Jakarta Post reported that an Indonesian government spokesman insisted “the decision was merely based on a ‘technical consular matter’ and was in no way a harbinger to stricter control of foreign media here.” Officials in Jakarta claim they reached an understanding last December with Fairfax, the publisher of the two newspapers, that a new correspondent would be dispatched. However, a Fairfax statement maintained, “We reject that any government can seek to decide whether any of our journalists is acceptable for the purposes of reporting from a foreign country.”
An editorial in the Herald declared that the effective banning of Murdoch “is an ominous sign that freedom of the press remains at risk, even under the democratic banner of the Megawati Government.” It warned:
Indonesia is facing myriad serious problems. Its weak central government, poorly disciplined security forces, ineffective judicial system and ailing economy demand courageous, accurate reporting and analysis. However, last year alone there were 95 violent attacks on journalists, including one murder, or press facilities. Sadly, Indonesian journalists are not yet free to report without fear and “censorship” has returned in the form of intimidation.
The South China Morning Post noted that last November Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri assured the People’s Consultative Assembly that the government “would not interfere with anybody’s right to express their opinions.” Megawati’s predecessor, Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia’s first freely elected president, abolished Indonesia’s information department, “which during Suharto’s time regularly expelled journalists it disapproved of. Megawati reinstated the department but promised the press would not be unnecessarily restrained.” The Jakarta Post concluded, “[I]t is of little comfort to local and foreign journalists when the government can take excessive measures against the press without transparent grounds.”