For the Indonesian public, Jus Soema di Praja isn’t exactly a household name, unlike such luminaries of Indonesian journalism as Tempo magazine stalwart Goenawan Muhammad, Kompas newspaper founder Jakob Oetama and late eminent journalist Rosihan Anwar.
There is little by way of adulation enjoyed by his more storied contemporaries for the 67-year-old as he sits in the ramshackle living room of a house in Depok, West Java that he has called home for over the past 30 years.
But his modest surroundings belie his uncompromising principles and unbending resolve, characteristics that he has held on to since the start of his struggle against government censorship in 1978.
Standing alone against repression
“I started my struggle against the government, which can best be described in the hit and run techniques of guerrilla warfare, after I resigned from Kompas in February 1978 after the paper complied with a new set of journalistic guidelines set by then President Suharto’s New Order Regime. I felt morally obliged to carry out the protest, because I felt that the paper was hampered from carrying out its responsibility as an impartial publication in accordance with the rules of a free press,” Jus said.
“Under Suharto’s so called journalistic ethics, the media had to help maintain national stability and ‘safeguard’ the government’s good name as well as those of the nation’s leaders.”
“The rules, which were imposed on 11 publications, including Kompas and other publications like Tempo, Sinar Harapan and the Indonesia Times as a condition for them to get back in circulation after their publishing permit was revoked the previous month,” he added.
The University of Indonesia Law School alumnus pointed out that the government took the measures, after it faced renewed student opposition and press criticism of the outcome of the 1977 presidential elections.
Jus’s brush with government repression of the press during his tenure in Kompas is almost like deja vu , as he faced a similar experience four years earlier.
“I started off my career at the Indonesia Raya newspaper from 1970 to 1974 before the newspaper, and other publications such as Nusantara, Abadi, and Pedoman were shut down by the government for our alleged complicity in the 15 January Incident protests in 1974,” he said.
“The real reason for Indonesia Raya’s disbandment was actually its uncovering of state oil company Pertamina’s mismanagement and financial wrongdoing by its then head Ibnu Sutowo, which cost the state over Rp 10 billion [$25 million dollars in 1974], since we carried out those investigations between 1968 and 1974.”
But unlike the publications which were put out of circulation in 1978, those which were shut down in the wake of the Jan. 15 demonstrations refused to cut a deal with the government or curb criticism of its increasing excesses, he explained.
“This resulted in those publications being liquidated, never to be brought back to circulation again,” Jus added.
The work they did in uncovering the Pertamina scandal was a breakthrough in Indonesian investigative journalism.
“Many government officials thought that then-attorney general Soegiharto gave us information, but in reality they relied on our findings,” he said.
“Those findings resulted in the formation of an Anti-Corruption Team which preceded the Corruption Eradication Commission [KPK] by nearly 40 years.”
Jus noted that the liquidation of Indonesia Raya was a serious blow to the Indonesian press, as its annual circulation of over 43,000 copies during its heyday was second only to Kompas.
Headed by eminent journalist and man of letters Mochtar Lubis, the newpaper was in the middle of its comeback after it was banned by President Sukarno between 1958 and 1968.
Retaining principles and continuing the struggle for a free press
While Jus’s actions were widely admired and earned widespread respect, it was but a lonely gesture of defiance.
“My actions were very much the exception to the norm in those days, as much of the press was hobbled by a play it safe attitude. The media outlets, starting from their owners, editors in chief, all the way to the reporters on the ground complied with the government once they’re faced with,” he said.
“When I had to resign, I had to support my wife and two children on the Rp 78,000 [$195 in 1978] that I received in severance pay. I was forced to take a job compiling clippings of newspaper articles, as well as earn fees by lecturing about press freedoms on the university circuit.”
However, Jus’ premature retirement didn’t stop him from getting involved with the press — and here, his list of achievements is quite long, too.
“I came out in support of Tempo Magazine after it was shut down by the government in 1982 following the Lapangan Banteng riots before the elections that year. I did the same in 1994, after it uncovered irregularities in the purchase of East German warships by then Research and Technology Minister BJ Habibie,” he recalled.
“In 1982, I helped Tempo get back in circulation by lobbying Jakob Oetama to testify as an expert witness on the magazine’s behalf. In 1994 I was one of the senior journalists who brought the Alliance of Independent Journalists, or AJI, into being.”
He pointed out that AJI helped give the press some clout, as it stood against the pro-government Indonesian Journalists Union (PWI Jaya). Jus added that his efforts also came at further cost, namely travel bans in 1978, 1982 and 1994.
Jus acknowledged that the freedom of speech enjoyed by Indonesia since President Suharto’s ousting in 1998 signified unprecedented opportunities for the country’s press. However, he pointed out that much needs to be done.
“The Indonesian press is still hobbled following decades of repression by the Sukarno and Suharto regimes, as well as years of self-censorship to get by during those years,” he said.
“For instance, their analytical skills weren’t as sharp as Tempo was during its founding in the early 1970s. Nor was the investigative journalism of today’s press as hard hitting as the investigative journalism we did to uncover the Pertamina scandal.”
Jus also pointed out that the press faced different challenges compared to his era.
“During the Suharto era, we predominantly had to deal with the government. But now, the media has to deal with private individuals and vested interests, such as the feud between Tempo magazine and businessman Tomy Winata in the mid 2000s,” he said.
“The preoccupation with ratings and sharing, as well as increasing circulation by media outlet owners also compromised the integrity of the media.”
Ever the optimist, Jus is certain that there’s still some hope left.
He called on the government to improve educational levels, and provide more economic opportunities nationwide. One can be certain that through his integrity and principles, he will leave an impression on generations to come.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on January 24, 2014