Keeping up the Tempo

Indonesia’s current affairs magazine Tempo was revived earlier this month after a four-year government ban. Our reporter in Jakarta, DERWIN PEREIRA, reports on the feisty publication’s struggle to make a comeback.

LIFE behind bars had little effect on Tempo journalist Ahmad Taufik.

In his 3- by 4-m squalid cell, he continued filing reports on corruption and bank scandals.

His sources were fellow prisoners and his stories were scribbled on scraps of paper. The jailhouse despatches were carried by various local publications which regarded him as a stringer.

The reports from behind bars did not go unnoticed, and the authorities moved him around four different prisons in Java.

“They wanted to kill off my ideals,” said Mr Taufik, now a senior Tempo journalist. “They could not because journalism was in my blood and I wanted to change this country.”

Mr Taufik, who was released last year, spent 28 months in jail for “sowing hatred” against the Indonesian government.

He was a member of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, a feisty underground group that sprang up in the mid-90s to fight the press crackdown which saw three publications, including Tempo, banned.

Mr Taufik’s story is one of many from the magazine’s band of journalists, many of whom had spent four years in oblivion after the government revoked Tempo’s permit for critical reporting of the Suharto administration.

It published an article in 1994 on an alleged conflict between then Finance Minister Mar’ie Muhammad and Research and Technology Minister B.J. Habibie, who is now President. The row was sparked by Dr Habibie’s decision to buy and refurbish 39 ships from the former East German navy.

Tempo’s Editor-in-Chief Goenawan Muhamad, who once described his role in the magazine as “a pilot on board a hijacked plane with journalists as its passengers”, said that he was “mentally prepared for a ban”.

“A week before the ban, Suharto made a speech, a very angry speech about newspapers and magazines which published the purchase of the East German ships,” he said.

“I learnt later that Habibie was very upset with the story and complained to Suharto. I knew then we were in trouble.”

Tempo’s eclipse took place around the same time of government attempts to eliminate voices calling for change after a brief experiment with “keterbukaan” – the Indonesian version of the Russian “glasnost” or openness.

Mr Goenawan said that Tempo was not the most daring or provocative of magazines to justify a ban.

He noted: “We were not like the Der Spiegel in Germany and not always in the frontline with controversial issues. But we were quite independent in the sense that we did not follow the government’s line.

“We supported some of the government’s efforts, especially in the economy. We were close to the economic ministers. We were, however, never close to the military or close to the bureaucracy. These elements always found Tempo annoying and were not comfortable with us.”

He said that months before the ban, Mr Suharto’s son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, recently ousted from Abri for involvement in the kidnappings of student activists, expressed interest in taking over Tempo and owning at least 60 per cent of its shares.

“Prabowo was the man pulling all the strings. He wanted to control us. He did not trust Tempo’s editor Fikri Jufri whom he suspected to be a Benny Murdani man. He was obsessed with the Murdani ghost.”

General Murdani was dismissed in 1988 as Armed Forces Commander for criticising the business activities of Mr Suharto’s family.

When Tempo was banned in June 1994, there was optimism among journalists that it would hit the streets again shortly. It was not the first ban for the magazine, which at the height of its popularity in the 90s sold 180,000 copies.

For five months after the ban, Tempo paid its staff full salaries including medical benefits. Said Mr Goenawan:

“The theory was that we had to be strong in dealing with the government… I find it very humiliating to give in to bullies. So when people start threatening, I fight back.”

Tempo went almost broke pursuing this strategy. On the brink of extinction, several journalists joined protests against theban.

They also filed a lawsuit against the government.

There was a glimmer of hope when a High Court overturned the government decision and ordered Tempo’s licence to be reissued.

This “victory” was short-lived. The Supreme Court subsequently overturned the ruling.

But the ban and the court ruling did not break their wills. They resorted to other innovative means to survive.

They set up an alumni, what many termed “a guerilla group”, to support unemployed Tempo journalists.

They published on the Internet. Tempo also emerged in new forms with the birth of magazines like D&R and Kontan.

What many journalists – almost 70 per cent of them – did not do was join Gatra, the weekly magazine the government set up after Tempo closed.

Said Mr Goenawan: “Some Tempo journalists joined Gatra because they did not have the confidence of finding jobs elsewhere. They were regarded as scums.”

Former Tempo executive editor Herry Komar, who joined Gatra to become its Editor-in-Chief, said he took the decision to leave and bring other staff with him because there was a need to “downgrade ideals and come to grips with reality”.

“I don’t care what Tempo thinks of those who left,” he said.

“I had to save the families of many without jobs and I have no regrets doing that.”

Observers here believe that in the coming months there will be a straight fight between Gatra and Tempo for market share.

In its first issue alone, Tempo sold all 130,000 copies in just two days. Gatra suffered a 10 to 15 per cent drop in sales over the last week.

Mr Komar, however, believes that this would only be temporary, given what he calls the “Ronaldo syndrome” afflicting Tempo.

He said: “It is like the World Cup finals between Brazil and France. Tempo is Brazil. They appear to be glowing with some stars like Goenawan Muhamad. Gatra is France. We are a stronger team all round and we are confident of beating them.”

He added: “There is some nostalgia about Tempo now. But after a number of issues, it might just fizzle away because Tempo might not meet people’s high expectations.”

And expectations are high indeed. Some expect Tempo to be the vanguard of national reform.

As Indonesia goes through another phase of “keterbukaan” and press freedom following Mr Suharto’s fall, Tempo is seen as the publication that can generate debate to bring political and economic changes.

There is another potential problem for Tempo.

Mr Komar said that Mr Goenawan’s links to Dr Amien Rais, the former leader of Muhammadiyah, by helping him form the National Mandate Party would “colour” Tempo’s political outlook in next year’s general election.

Tempo journalists think otherwise and believe their boss will be open to criticism and other viewpoints.

Said Mr Taufik: “Goenawan Muhamad is not Tempo. Neither he nor any of us will forget the big picture. That is why I am back in this magazine.”

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