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Coverage of Indonesia Vote Changes

June 6, 1999

SURABAYA, Indonesia (AP) _ During Indonesia’s authoritarian past, most journalists did the government’s bidding during election campaigns, and the result was never in doubt.

Then-President Suharto’s ruling Golkar Party got the vast majority of the attention, with token coverage given to two officially approved minority parties.

But before elections Monday to fill 462 Parliament seats _ Indonesia’s first open election in 44 years _ the media were not handed a script for the first time in decades.

The outcome of this key step in Indonesia’s transition to democracy is uncertain. Limits on coverage are few. For many reporters, documenting a freewheeling election without restrictions has been an exhilarating challenge _ and a bewildering experience.

How, for instance, do you cover 48 political parties, most of them newly formed? Should they all get attention? Their platforms are all pro-reform and anti-corruption, so how do you distinguish their differences?

It was confusing and hard to focus, said Kukuh Sanyoto, a producer at RCTI, a private television news station. He likened his job to a carnival outing: ``Suddenly, you’re in a big fair with lots of people and so many stands and counters and banners everywhere.″

Many political parties have yet to learn how to get their ideas out to the media, Sanyoto said. Telephone calls to party headquarters sometimes go unanswered.

The media took cues from the front-runners, including opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s founding President Sukarno. She has formed a coalition with two other longtime critics of Suharto, who was ousted a year ago by civil unrest.

But Megawati and allies Amien Rais and Abdurrahman Wahid have also dominated the media because their popularity sells newspapers _ a powerful incentive in a country hit hard by economic turmoil.

``All parties ask for the same space. But we can’t comply with that,″ said Ali Murtadlo, an editor at the Jawa Pos newspaper in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city.

``The people in marketing say, `If you put a picture of Megawati (on the front page), the newspaper will be sold at 8 a.m. They guarantee that,″ Murtadlo said, even though Megawati rarely gives interviews.

In contrast, few media organizations have had anything good to say about the Golkar Party, the buttress of Suharto’s rule that has since endorsed and implemented democratic reforms.

For years, the media treated Suharto and his family with reverence. Now the former army general and his millionaire children are often the targets of ridicule and allegations about corruption.

During Suharto’s 32 years in power, the government often muzzled or shut down publications that were considered too critical. Some journalists were thrown in jail.

President B.J. Habibie, Suharto’s successor and former protege, embraced a free press, and his information ministry has handed out hundreds of licenses for new publications. But critics say the timid journalism associated with the past remains common.

Many newspapers, they say, print the statements of politicians without challenging their veracity. Official handouts are popular, but interviews with people in the street are not. Investigative pieces, context and background are scarce.

``There’s no effort to look at nuances,″ said Dede Oetomo, a linguistics and anthropology lecturer at Surabaya’s Airlangga University.

Indonesia’s unfettered media were too critical for Smita Notosusanto, head of the University Network for Free and Fair Elections. She complained that media attacks on her privately funded election monitoring group could erode the credibility of the vote.

``They don’t really pay attention to the fact that it might be hurting the very cause that they’re trying to defend,″ she said.

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