Building capacity for elections and legal reform in East

Building capacity for elections and legal reform in East Timor and Indonesia
By Kavi Chongkittavorn
Chairperson of Southeast Asian Alliance, Bangkok
Indonesia has 220 million people and used to have East Timor with the population of
800,000 as its 27th province. After the national referendum in August 1999, East
Timor gained independence after 24 years under the control of Indonesia, not to
mention the previous two centuries of Portuguese rule. Each has a different history
and culture but both countries have experienced democracy and free media almost at
the same time.
Since independence, Indonesia has had five presidents in over half a century. Two
presidencies of Sukarto and Suharto lasted a total of 48 years with the latter taking up
32 years. After the student uprising against President Suharto in May 1998 that
subsequently purged him out, the country took almost three years to prepare for the
transition from dictatorship to a full democracy. From 1998 to 2001, Indonesia
managed to have three presidents, J Habibie, until 1999, then Abdurrahman Wahid
until 2001 and the current one, Megawati Soekarnoputri. In 5 July 2004, there will be
45 presidential candidates competing for the position, up from three in the previous
East Timor was luckier, the country had the full assistance from the UN and the
international community to prepare for its nation-building during transition. The UN
also helped to organize the country’s first election. Liberal UN administrators wanted
to promote East Timor as the world’s newest and most dynamic democracy. They ran
the country for two years putting everything in place before leaving.
As new democracies, Indonesia and East Timor have to face the daunting challenge of
nation building. Indonesia has to dismantle existing non-democratic structures to give
ways for transparency and accountability, something unheard of during the Suharto
reign. To achieve these objectives, legal and electoral reform has been pinpointed as
two of the most important components to encourage and strengthen democracy. As
part of the country’s broader national development and democratization efforts,
Indonesian political leaders following
the 1999 national election declared a
commitment to uphold the rule of law, affirming the importance of law reform. But
progress has been slow in reforming the judiciary and other legal institutions and
reducing corruption. As such, it has highlighted the role of media and dynamic
Indonesian civil society organizations in promoting national law reform efforts.
Unlike Indonesia, East Timor has to build anew every thing, especially an
independent legislature and other basic democratic institutions. But the country has
the support of the whole world.
Indonesia: learning from regional experience and best practices
The downfall of Suharto allows the Indonesian media to grow exponentially. Since a
publishing license is not required, it is estimated that 1,200 new printed newspapers,
900 new radio stations have emerged since 1998 along with 10 commercial TV
stations with a total of 22,000 journalists working for all the media. In the past five
years, the Indonesian media are free to produce almost any kind of political
information. Such media freedom has increased public awareness about politics and
economic conditions of the country. As the outcome of April 5 election revealed, free
media has promoted policy awareness of each political party and the idea of moderate
Islam. Earlier, there were fears that fundamental Islamic political groups would win
big in the election because the voters were disenchanted with politics and economic
hardship. That was not the case. Again, Indonesian media should be given credit
because of their extensive reports on policy similarities and differences.
From 1998 to 2001, the Indonesian media started to learn about the reporting of
modern political campaigns along with news spin and manipulations from the region.
A team of Thai journalists was sent to attend a workshop in Jakarta in early 1999 to
share their experience in reporting on elections with the Indonesian journalists. Best
practices of electoral reporting in Thailand were translated to Bahasa Indonesia.
Electoral reporting with two or three parties competing is far easier than reporting the
2004 election with more than 24 parties vying for seats.
As a new democracy, Indonesia also looks up to its democratic neighbors in the
region. The Philippines and Thailand’s past democratic experience has proved useful.
In drafting a freedom of information law in 2001, Indonesia learned from the Thai
experience and resources. Now, the draft, which is far more liberal and open, will be
considered by the law makers in the future. For the past three years, the Philippine
Center for Investigative Journalists and the Thai Journalists Association have jointly
trained Indonesian journalists in investigative journalism, especially in corruption
investigation. Both Thai and Filipino media have made use of acess to information
laws in accessing government-held information and documents, enabling their media
to dig deep and uncover corruption scandals. Numerous case studies from the two
countries found a strong resonant among the Indonesian journalists. They were
focused on corrupted leaders and their cronies.
Five months after the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) was founded in
November 1998, a SEAPA branch in Jakarta was opened, reflecting the urgency of
protecting fragile media freedom there. Alliance of Indonesian Independent
Journalists, an independent media body, cooperated with SEAPA in setting up this
branch. Within months, an alert system was established to report on abuses of
journalists and media conditions throughout the archipelagos. In the past three years,
SEAPA Jakarta has become the region’s most active in putting out the alert for
disseminating through the International Exchange of Freedom of Expression, the
world’s largest network of free media advocacy groups. These alerts also promote
solidarity among journalists in the region as they absorb details of abuses and plight
of their colleagues. Now, for the first time, they feel that any attack on a journalist in
the region is an attack on all journalists.
When an Indonesian journalist, Ersa Siregar, was killed in Aceh by the Indonesian
military last December during a clash with the Acehese rebels, known as Gerakan
Aceh Merdeka, SEAPA immediately protested to the Indonesian government and
expressed the wish to send a fact-finding team to Aceh. But the Indonesian Ministry
of Security refused the request. After the breakdown in the ceasefire agreement in
May last year, restriction on coverage of the conflict there was imposed. SEAPA also
quickly condemned it. Since then, the Indonesian media have not reported on the
situation in Aceh amid growing violence. Using the American model, the Indonesian
military seeks to control access to information through the system of embedding of
local journalists and information screening. The government hopes that the journalists
can cover the conflict from a nationalistic point of view. Both the Aceh conflict, as
well as the ongoing anti-terrorism campaign has impacted on media freedom in
Indonesia. National security interest now has become the priority so much so that
some Golkar lawmakers have already floated the idea that the defunct Ministry of
Information, which served as the main propaganda tool of Sukarto during his 32- year
reign, should be revived. They have argued that Indonesian journalists are too free
and too Westernized.
East Timor: Building capacity of media institutions in post conflict
Following the national referendum in August 1999, East Timor
moved quickly
towards becoming an independent country. Obviously, there was an urgent need to
establish some form of media institutions as soon as possible to support capacitybuilding for journalists to report on upcoming election. Before the Indonesian troops
left East Timor followed the massive carnage, they managed to destroy all existing
media structures and facilities. In the post conflict situation such as this, East
Timorese journalists were rather apprehensive against Indonesian journalists, who had
been living there for a long time. Despite a small number of 50 journalists in East
Timor, they were divided into various groups and they mistrusted each other greatly.
Some of these journalists were Indonesians working there as correspondents for the
mainstream newspapers with their head offices in Jakarta, while others were East
Timorese journalists returning from Indonesia, who were eager to contribute to
nation-building. Meanwhile young and inexperienced East Timorese journalists who
went through the ordeal of the past 24 years in their countries thought one-sidedly that
they had a greater responsibility to report about their country to the outside world than
anyone else. These three groups often went their own ways without cooperating with
one another.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance took the initiative in late 1999 to facilitate
dialogue among various groups and stressed the need to work and cooperate with each
other. As a Bangkok-based media advocacy group, SEAPA was seen as a neutral
small regional body by the East Timorese journalists. It took two plenary meetings
with several sub-meetings to work out common objectives and programs in the timespan of five weeks. Once a consensus was reached to establish a journalist
association, there was not much time to find donors. Fortunately, donors including
UNESCO stood ready to help.
On 22 December 1999, Timor Lorosae Journalists Association (TLJA) was
established in Dili with 60 young members. Some of them had been journalists for
only two months. Headcounts were important at the time. There were two important
reasons. First, the association served as a focal point where local journalists could
share common experience and learn how to work together and resolve common
problems such as identifying common donors and common printers, among other
things. . In the post war conflict, people in the same profession were looking for the
same things to start their plans. As such, the sooner various groups of journalists got
together, the faster they could move forward. This helped potential donors who
wanted to provide assistance and avoid overlapping programs and activities. After
one and half months, donors were identified. Immediately, they were able to provide
an office for journalists to work in and use online facilities including installation of a
second-hand printer and imported newsprints for journalists wanting to publish their
own newspapers or newsletters. Even though East Timor has less than a million
people, they speak four distinctive languages—Portuguese, Indonesian, English and a
local dialect Tetum.
Second, the journalist association was considered a protective shield against the
incoming government so that freedom of expression would be respected. Without an
organization to represent them, they felt subjected to the exercise of power by
authorities. SEAPA also helped TLJA to draft by-laws using lessons and experience
from Thailand and
the Philippines. Other non-governments from Australia,
Portuguese also contribute to the richness of the East Timorese media bringing in
various perspective and professionalism. But it is not wrong to say that TLJA was the
product of regional media cooperation, without any sanction by the governments.
In the past five years, TLJA has been trying to consolidate their organization and
membership. To continue to help guide TLJA, SEAPA has established a mentoring
programme to guide the association. But this effort has not yet worked out very well
as members continue to concentrate on their immediate tasks—working on their own
papers and coping with day-to-day task. The lack of economic incentives and seed
funds also weakens the TLJA. These are the issues that will be discussed in Dili
during the TLJA Annual Congress this week. Last year, SEAPA admitted the TLJA
as an associated member along with two independent media organizations in
Cambodia to strengthen the link with regional media.
In conclusion, some valuable lessons can be drawn from this regional framework.
First, the use of local and regional resources must be utilized and encouraged. This
will allow local and regional wisdom to come into play that can strengthen
cooperation and work to broaden frameworks to promote democracy and freedom of
expression. Second, donor countries need to spread out assistance, if they decide to
give, over a period of time. Short term or specific term less than one create a mind-set
among the recipients of non-sustainability which will affect their planning and
implementation. Well thought out and sustained assistance will be more useful.
Finally, in any society, pluralism is not a given. It has to be nurtured through building
supportive institutions; especially professional media that will serve as a watchdog to
ensure that pluralism will not morph into dictatorship.