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Making Seconds Count

5 minute read
Julie K.L. Dam

AS IT HAS BEEN THROUGHOUT HIS 26 years of rule, when President Suharto talks, Indonesia listens. But in a political system so secretive that even insiders have a hard time figuring out what is being said around the President’s office, residents of the archipelago nation are turning to a new source to follow the inner workings of the government. DeTik, an upstart weekly newspaper, is addressing once off-limits political and social issues, pushing the envelope of the permissible. Last week the government reacted with a warning shot that has observers wondering if the paper has perhaps pressed its luck as far as it will go.

Few people took seriously the official 1990 announcement that press censorship would be relaxed, but the timing turned out to be right for DeTik (the name means a second of time). Since it began publishing in February 1993, the tabloid has built a circulation of more than 450,000, nearly doubling in just the past three months. Fueling the sales surge has been a series of articles on government corruption and exclusive military interviews that had Indonesians, especially rival editors, wondering when the government would finally put its foot down. That moment came last week, when DeTik editor Eros Djarot received a summons from the Department of Information. He was ordered to return the paper to its original mandate — as a tabloid crime magazine.

But Eros and 40 energetic staff members have created an appetite for controversy in the Indonesian reading public that will not be easily slaked. “DeTik’s young journalists have captured a mood,” comments Aristides Katoppo, a publishing consultant whose own newspaper was shut down during a purge in the 1980s. “They have a different vision of what society looks like. They aren’t corrupted. They are articulating issues that need to be articulated. The undercurrents are not undercurrents anymore.” Says founder- editor Eros: “If you were Indonesian, you would understand why we needed DeTik. Look at the front page of a newspaper, you would see the same thing. The articles are very polite, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings — and not saying anything. But change is so uncertain now that people want to know what is going to happen.”

In March, while covering the trial of financier Eddy Tansil, who is accused of using letters of credit to swindle $436 million of government funds, DeTik published copies of letters written by former government officials that may implicate them in the fraud. “We had the same documents,” says Susanto Pudjomartono, editor of the daily Jakarta Post, “but we didn’t print them.”

DeTik’s greatest scoop, however, came while the paper was acting as a conduit for political signals. Last October, Suharto installed Information Minister Harmoko, who has no military credentials, as chief of the ruling Golkar Party — a post that had previously been reserved for generals. The weekly published an interview with Army Major-General Sembiring Meliala, a former member of Parliament, who warned that the military would not tolerate being pushed away from the centers of power — raising the specter of a clash between the President and the military.

Eros attributes some of his editorial brashness to his days as a student activist in Germany and Britain, where he was schooled in engineering and filmmaking. When he returned to Indonesia in 1981 after 12 years abroad, he got a massive case of culture shock as he confronted opposition to his Western-inculcated ideas. “I was so overwhelmed,” Eros says, “that a doctor advised me to lie down for three months and not say or do anything.” By 1986 he had been up and around enough to make a critically acclaimed feature film, Tjoet Nya’ Dhien, about an Indonesian woman who led an armed rebellion against the colonial Dutch in the late 19th century. Shortly thereafter Eros started up DeTik with a ragtag crew of 16 volunteers. Using the name of a defunct crime tabloid, Eros published his first commercial issue in 1993.

Eros sees DeTik’s role as essentially constructive. “My enemy is not the government,” he says. “It is backwardness. The quality of our education and social services does not match the modern facades of our buildings. Our physical development is rapid, but our intellectual development is limited.”

The tabloid’s successful formula has also encouraged other publications to test the limits of the acceptable. Forum Keadilan, a biweekly newsmagazine, has used similar investigative techniques to boost its sales from 20,000 to 120,000 over the past year. Even the once cautious English-language Jakarta Post, with a 30,000 circulation, has doubled its Indonesian readership with more hard-hitting stories and editorials.

Despite its audacity, some observers are convinced that DeTik is getting high-powered support — perhaps from the military. “You don’t get this kind of information unless someone hands it to you,” says an Indonesian government official. Now that the government has issued its latest warning to the brash journal, however, it remains to be seen how much support DeTik can continue to muster. Despite all the welcome and unwelcome attention, Eros seems undaunted. | “If you are afraid,” he says, “then don’t do anything in this country.” A sensible warning no doubt, but one he at least clearly does not intend to heed.

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