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For a free, independent press

Publication Date : 03-05-2012

 

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day today, it is worthwhile asking the question whether journalists and the media they work for have exercised independence in the course of their job serving the nation.

In the 2012 Press Freedom Index released by Freedom House this week, Indonesia ranked 97th of 197 countries worldwide, and 22nd of 36 Asia-Pacific countries. Hardly apt for a country that likes to brag itself as the world’s third largest democracy.

Indonesia may be fortunate in having a legal framework that is one of the most progressive in Asia in guaranteeing press freedom, but the media suffer from a huge credibility gap that comes from their perceived lack of independence. This perception develops because many major media outlets shamelessly reflect the political or business interests of their proprietors. They are failing in their job of serving the interests of the people.

The freedom that journalists and the media in Indonesia enjoy today has given them the luxury of space to perform their tasks as a pillar of democracy far more effectively than during the three-decade regime of press censorship under president Soeharto until 1998.

The media keep the public informed, including about the choices available to them at election times. The media also act as an effective watchdog on the powers-that-be, keeping government and big business accountable. In democracy, the media do many others things to meet the people’s needs for accurate and credible information.

Journalists or the media cannot perform these essential functions in a democracy without freedom. If journalism is a profession in the service of the public, freedom then is the sine qua non for the services rendered. Through a series of legislation since 1998, the people have placed their trust in a free press to work for their interests. Trust is the chief currency in this trade. It is both a public trust and a mandate.

One disturbing trend in the media industry globally, and not just in Indonesia, is the increasing conglomeration of media outlets. This growing concentration of ownership may be the nature of the media business, but it should never come at the expense of undermining the media’s credibility.

Fortunately, the Internet has leveled the playing field. Today, mainstream media sources have to compete with a host of new players, from bloggers to citizen journalists who actively disseminate information through the social media. In spite of the conglomerations, no media group in the country has undue influence to control the flow of news and information. Every single one of them, whether big or small, part of a major chain or independent, is subject to the same credibility test by the public.

The people are no fools. Any journalist or media outlet that abuses their freedom will be caught out and very quickly lose their credibility. They will be punished severely, not by some powerful institutions, but by the forces of the free market. The public is so much smarter and today they have so many choices at their disposal from which to source their news and information. You betray their trust at your peril.

On World Press Freedom Day, journalists and their media have to answer truthfully whether they have worked for the interests of the people and functioned independent of the political and business interests of their proprietors. This is also the question that the people ask when deciding which news sources they want to trust and rely on from a wide range of choices available. In all likelihood, they already know the answer.

In the end, this is the question that journalists need to ask and to answer themselves in order to save their profession, the media they work for and, ultimately, to save democracy and the nation.

 

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