'New Order' nostalgia is for a past best left to history
July-September 2014
By: Jim Della-Giacoma

Technological backwardness made it harder to report and easier to censor. During rioting that followed the raid, I paused from watching the mayhem to send in dispatches from public payphones. Before the world could watch the Reuters television images of the raid and riots, the video needed to actually get out. On this day, intelligence agents blocked the single satellite feed point at Indosat on Jalan Merdeka Barat. It is hard to imagine that such a choke point existed when today most everyone shopping at the Grand Indonesia mall down the street has video and Internet access in their hand and a Facebook account to share what they see and think of the world. Maybe this does create information overload, but it is also a bulwark against going back to a time when Indonesians knew too little about what was going on in their own country.

In the 1990s, foreign correspondents were the mice and authorities the cat in this game of controlling the news. Within hours of the raid on the PDI headquarters, we had gotten around the obstacles and our version of events was on CNN. Officials were confused how we did it. In fact, my girlfriend had flown to Singapore with a video in her backpack, sent on a weekend “shopping trip” courtesy of the bureau. Throughout the day our “pigeons” flew with progressively more dramatic pictures as the riots only got worse. After nightfall, I watched a man trying to clamber out the window of a burning building in Central Jakarta. Losing his grip on a makeshift rope, he plunged to his death. The loss of life on that day was limited, but it was a prelude to 1998 when I counted hundreds of charred bodies in a morgue on the same street. At this time, Indonesia was still trying to protect its image as a successful story of development and using all the tools of state censorship to ensure contradictory reports were not aired.

A few days after the raid on the PDI, Lt Gen Syarwan Hamid, then head of the Indonesian military’s social and political affairs section, held a press conference at military headquarters. He pointed the finger at the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) for being behind the riots. This “party” was self-proclaimed and unregistered, and no one could vote for it. The leftist PRD leaders were regular fixtures on the Jakarta protest circuit, and I knew them well enough, including its head, Budiman Sudjatmiko, who is now a legislator for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) that eventually succeeded PDI.

This group had led the occupation of the Dutch and Russian embassies in December 1995 to mark the 20th anniversary of the invasion of East Timor. I had not seen any of its key figures outside the PDI headquarters. I asked the general: was he making scapegoats of this group?

My impertinence made the three-star livid. “Assumptions like that are too cheap, too naïve,” he replied, almost shouting. Kompas daily reported the exchange the next day on its front page. A journalist there later thanked me for asking a question he dared not ask himself. This allowed local media to report the exchange in full. Readers would then assume the opposite of what was said would be the truth. Similarly, foreign news agencies reporting an event of state violence allowed local media some cover to then report on the dispatches published overseas. Internationals played an indirect role in keeping the domestic audience informed about what was going in their own country. It may be hard to imagine in today’s Indonesia of hypercompetitive and unrestrained reporting, but the media under Soeharto was meek, mild and cowed.

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