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INDONESIA: If we lack credibility or integrity, we are worthless, says Bambang

Tempo magazine's chief editor Bambang Harymurti shows that his spirit is not broken and his one-year prison sentence will not stop his fight for press freedom

The Jakarta Post
Saturday, September 18, 2004

By Urip Hudiono

Bambang Harymurti showed no signs of being broken in spirit when a panel of judges at the Central Jakarta District Court found him guilty of libel and sentenced him to a year in prison on Thursday.

Instead, after the judges had finished delivering their verdict, the chief editor of Tempo weekly magazine gave a broad smile, raised his right hand in a fist and shouted enthusiastically to the crowd of visitors -- mostly fellow journalists -- who had packed the courtroom in support of him.

"Don't worry, my friends! We shall continue the fight for freedom of the press!" said Bambang, who, with this ruling, has now firmly established his name on the list of the country's main defenders of the cause.

Even before the libel trial, Bambang had already been fighting for the country's press freedom during his years as a journalist -- from the closing down of Tempo by the authoritarian Soeharto regime in 1994, to the recent onslaught of other libel lawsuits filed against the weekly, bypassing the country's 1999 Press Law.

All the while, Bambang continually reminded fellow journalists of how important it was to maintain their credibility and integrity in order to support such freedom in their profession.

"Journalists are valued for their credibility and integrity: If we lack either, we are worthless," Bambang once said in an interview with Kompas daily newspaper.

Born on Dec. 10, 1956, in Jakarta, the eldest son of Ahmad Sudarsono and Karlina Koesoemadinata never dreamed of being a journalist. Following in the footsteps of his father, who was an Air Force pilot, Bambang's childhood dream was to become an astronaut.

His engineering education -- Bambang was given a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the Bandung Institute of Technology in 1984 -- would also have supported such a dream.

However, in a "fortunate" twist of fate for the country's press, that childhood dream never came true -- although in the following years, when Bambang was working for Tempo and was assigned to do a story on the country's space program, he qualified as one of the program's potential astronauts.

When asked why he ended up being a journalist, Bambang always said that it was purely by chance.

In 1982, while looking for a part-time job to help support his family after his father passed away, he saw an ad for a job with Tempo magazine. He applied, and was accepted as a intern reporter at the weekly's Jakarta bureau.

Bambang -- who is commonly referred to by his intials, BHM -- worked his way up from the bottom, at the same time finishing his studies before finally being employed full-time as a reporter.

After four years as a reporter, Bambang was awarded an Alfred Friendly Free Press Fellowship in 1986 to do an internship at the Washington bureau of Time weekly magazine.

In the same year, Bambang got married to Marga Alisjahbana, his long-time college friend, who later gave him two children -- Rimar Andhika and Mutiara Maharini.

Upon his return to Indonesia, Bambang was appointed as head of Tempo's Bandung bureau for two years.

Bambang was further promoted as editor of the weekly's national, and science and technology columns in 1987, and later as head of the Jakarta bureau of Tempo.

In 1991, Bambang became head of Tempo's Washington bureau in the United States, until the magazine was shut down in 1994.

With fellow former Tempo journalists, Bambang set up a media company, Eks-T, which, in the following years, collaborated with Media Indonesia daily on its Sunday edition. Bambang eventually became its editor and, later on, was asked to become the daily's executive editor.

Bambang then took up the offer of a scholarship for a master's degree at Harvard University, and stayed in the U.S. until three months after the Soeharto regime was toppled by the reform movement in mid-1998.

When Tempo magazine was reinstated in October that same year, Bambang returned to become its deputy chief editor. He became the weekly's number one man when he replaced Tempo cofounder Goenawan Mohamad in 1999.

After 22 long years in journalism, Bambang realized the significance of press freedom in a nation's democracy. He strongly believes that journalists can play a role in helping to overcome the nation's nervousness about practicing democracy.

Bambang explained that journalists, whose day-to-day task is to convey information to the public, must participate in supplying the public with information that is relevant, credible and timely, so that the public can make the right choices and feel self-confident in exercising their democratic rights.

"Journalists, whose duty is to inform the public, can be likened to lamps lighting up a room," Bambang said. "If we are easily extinguished by intimidation from evil forces, then that same evil force will steal more in the darkness."

Bambang also has strong feelings with regard to the criminalization of the press, which is still taking place in the country.

"The global train is rapidly advanced and has left the station of press criminalization behind. We, too, must be aboard that train and not allow ourselves to be left behind."

Bambang mentioned several developing countries -- Ukraine, Ghana and Sri Lanka -- that have banned all acts of press criminalization.

"Even in East Timor, which has inherited most of our legislation, including our 1999 Press Law, criminalization of the press no longer occurs, because it has been forbidden by their constitution."

Asia Institute