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  • The Making of the 1999 Indonesian Press Law
  • Janet Steele (bio)

Perhaps the single greatest achievement of Indonesian President B. J. Habibie's seventeen months in office was the freeing of the Indonesian press. Nearly all scholarly works on Reformasi or the post-Suharto years note how Habibie's minister of information, Lieutenant General Muhammad Yunus Yosfiah, "stunned the nation" by revoking the ministerial regulations that had choked the press during Suharto's time.1 To Indonesian journalists, it has always been clear that many of the other notable achievements of the Habibie presidency would not have been possible without vigorous reporting by a newly revitalized press. Unprecedented scrutiny from the press uncovered scandals—including the Bank Bali and Habibie-Ghalib tape scandals—that easily would have been swept under the carpet during the Suharto years.2 Public opposition to legislation supported by the administration, such as the State Security bill, was fanned into high flames by a newly unshackled press.3 Habibie's historic decision to offer the people of East Timor a referendum on their status received widespread coverage in the Indonesian press, much of it negative. And [End Page 1] such tragedies as what later became known as "Semanggi I," in which fifteen protesters were killed and five hundred wounded in violent clashes with security forces during the first post-Suharto MPR (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat, People's Consultative Assembly) session, were also covered by the press in direct ways that would have been unimaginable only a few months earlier.4

Yet despite the obvious importance of the 1999 Press Law, there has been a surprising lack of scholarly interest in the complex negotiations and set of events that led to its passage. The law, which was arguably the crown jewel of Reformasi, was the result of a remarkable collaboration between journalists, the minister of information, the public, and the legislative assembly (DPR, Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, People's Representative Assembly). Beginning with the resignation of Suharto in May 1998, Indonesian journalists wasted no time in seizing the moment to institutionalize press freedom. As Warief Djajanto wrote, "During the brief seventeen-month Habibie presidency, media leaders worked fast and furiously with a forward-looking information minister and concerned legislators to make press freedom legally binding."5 Signed into law by President Habibie on September 23, 1999, as one of his last legislative acts, UU Pers no. 40/1999 received widespread acclaim as a model press law. Leo Batubara, the head of the Indonesian Newspaper Publishers' Association, called it a "masterpiece."6

By effectively eliminating state control of print media, the 1999 Press Law redefined Indonesian press-government relations. Yet Indonesian courts have not been consistent in using the Press Law as lex specialis in cases involving the press. After tracing the events and negotiations leading up to the historic passage of the Press Law and noting the contradictions between it and the criminal defamation provisions of the Penal Code, this study concludes with a brief discussion of what might have motivated some of the players to become unlikely "heroes" of press freedom. It ends with a comment on the importance of the passage of the 1999 Press Law in securing lasting reform.

Under President Suharto, Indonesia's press was tightly controlled through a series of regulations enacted and enforced by the Ministry of Information. Although the Basic Press Act of 1966 explicitly guaranteed freedom of the press in accordance with the fundamental rights of citizens, would-be press entrepreneurs were required to obtain two permits before they could publish a newspaper or magazine: the Permit to Publish (SIT, Surat Izin Terbit) from the Department of Information and the Permit to Print (SIC, Surat Izin Cetak) from the military security authority.7 As David Hill has written, to obtain a press publication enterprise permit, or SIUPP (Surat Izin Usaha Penerbitan Pers), during the Suharto years, a news organization had to produce "a raft of more than a dozen letters and preliminary permits, including letters of support from all relevant professional organizations (the Indonesian Journalists Association and the [Newspaper] [End Page 2] Publishers' Association) at both the regional and national level, several permits from civilian and military authorities, [and] supporting letters...


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pp. 1-22
Launched on MUSE
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