Editorial and Opinion Writing
The Jakarta Post’s editorials
FROM “SPEAK WITH GOOD WORDS” TO “TELL IT AS IT IS”
By Akhmad Kusaeni
The first issue of the Jakarta Post appeared on 25 April 1983. The new English daily is unique, not only in its goal, which is to improve the standard of English language media in Indonesia, but also in bringing together four competing media publishers into producing a quality newspaper with an Indonesian perspective.
Over the course of 2004, the Jakarta Post published well over 30,000 articles in its opinion-editorial pages. Each day, except for Sunday edition, this newspaper publishes one or two editorials, around four opinions, one or more news analysis or columns and letters to editor. In order to be focus on my critique, I limit my evaluation merely to the editorials.
This paper will be a critique to the Jakarta Post editorials, and not to the op-ed pages as a whole. It consists of two parts. The first part will be a critique of the editorial pieces’ performance in terms of its value to its readers, on the basis of what I know the editorial should be. The second part will consist of my evaluation of the writing.
From 1 January 2004 to 31 December 2004, the Jakarta Post published more than 300 editorials. Out of it, I use 30 editorials randomly for my evaluation. Those editorials raised various issues, from politics to foreign affairs and from economics to social cultural issues. In short, the editorials addressed all the topics of the newspaper concerns and related to the public interests.
Just for example, the Jakarta Post wrote editorials on Respecting pedestrian (August 4); Tentacles of corruption (July 23); Justice for sale (November 11); Enhancing the press role (July 2); Subsidizing the rich (December 9); Moral hazard (December 15); An appeal to Americans (November 1); Arafat, a legacy of hope (November 12); United in crisis (December 28); Happy, safe holiday (December 21), and so on and so forth.
In other words, the editorials serve to make readers better understand public issues. At least, the writers have tried to develop an informed public by several ways.
By explaining the news and evaluating the importance of events to the public.
In November 1, the Jakarta Post wrote an editorial with title “An appeal to Americans” to explain public the importance of United States election on the next day. Given the America’s preeminence in the global affairs, which is unprecedented in the history of mankind, this is going to be the most important election ever.
The writer calls this as the mother of all elections because it will determine the fate of more than six billion people of the world.
“The rest of the world can only appeal to Americans and remind them of their duty as the world’s most powerful nation. They must bear in mind that when they cast their votes on Tuesday, they are also voting on behalf of the rest of the world. Whoever they elect president is going to have immense power to make this world a better or a worse place to live”.
By providing context and background to broaden public understanding of the significance of an event.
In “Subsiding the rich”, the writer give context and historical background of the government decision to raise fuel prices. The current administration has no choice but to increase fuel prices to reduces the subsidies. There are a number of reasons for why reducing fuel subsidies is far more urgent now than ever before. In the past, high crude oil process used to be good news when the country was a net oil exporter. High prices mean a windfall profit for the country. Now this situation has changed and this year for the first time the country has become a net importer for oil.
According to the writer, fuel subsidies in Indonesia have frequently failed to help their intended target: the poor.
“Many subsidies end up benefiting the more affluent groups in society because of their stronger political and purchasing power or simply because of corruption,” said the Jakarta Post editorial.
By predicting what can happen, as when an editorial predicts how the public may respond to the court ruling.
The Jakarta Post wrote an editorial to express its opinion on Tempo case. The Central Jakarta State Court sentenced editor in chief of the leading Tempo magazine Bambang Harymurti one year in jail. Bambang was founded guilty of defamation, a violation of the Criminal Code inherited from Dutch rule.
The editorial said that this court ruling was a chilling blow to the future of press freedom in Indonesia. Bambang is the first in the country to be sent to prison for something he issued in the post-Soeharto era.
“The country’s free press is in peril, as law courts have continued to use the Criminal Code to try journalists in defamation case. Be careful, the enemy (of free press) is at the gate,” the editorial warned journalists.
By providing standards with which the correctness of an act, a law, a proposal or a policy can be evaluated.
In “Trying the press”, the Jakarta Post hailed Press Council decision on October 2004 as “a momentous decision that should re-ignite freedom of expression’s dimming light”. In a decision that will surely become a model for resolving future press disputes, the council found that four publications breached the Indonesian Journalist’s Code of Ethics. State Minister for State Enterprises Laksamana Sukardi had accused the publications of libel and brought them before the council for adjudication.
The four publications were found to have violated the principle of presumption of innocence by suggesting that Laksanama had fled the country with more than US$100 million in state money.
In what is an affirmation of justice without vengeance, the council nevertheless rejected Laksamana’s demand that publications pay him a total of US$22 million in damages. The council instructed that the all four publications must publish an apology, a long with an unedited interview with Laksamana. Failure to comply with the council decision could result in fines of up to Rp500 million.
The Jakarta Post said, “The council should also be praised for refusing to criminalize errors in editorial judgment and handling down a punishment appropriate for the violation. A financial penalty in the hundreds of millions of rupiah would have all but bankrupted these publications, which was never the intent of the press law”.
According to Prof. Luis V. Teodoro, editorials must be based on verifiable facts; if necessary, the editorial writer undertakes research from a variety of sources. The writers should not rely on the news pages of his or her media organization alone.
In this case, I have come to a conclusion that most of the Jakarta Post’s editorials are based on sound research. But, of course, there are always exceptions. The Jakarta Post editorial writers sometimes perpetrate the factual errors of their newspaper not only by repeating them in the editorial page, but even by basing conclusions, evaluations and predictions on them. And, the Jakarta Post had paid severe consequences because of this factual error.
The state oil and gas company Pertamina filled a lawsuit on 28 June 2004 over an editorial in the Jakarta Post daily that accused the firm of “lies and falsehoods” in its controversial sale of two new supertankers. President Director of Pertamina Ariffi Nawawi accused the Post’s chief editor Raymond Toruan of tarnishing the company’s “good name” in June 23 editorial headlined “Tentacles of Corruption”. Toruan was charged that he violated Articles 310 and 311 of the Criminal Code on libel and defamation, which carry a maximum penalty of four years in prison.
In the process, Toruan admitted that the editorial on “Tentacles of Corruption” was “a compilation of all news and analysis that has been reported regarding the controversy over the sale of the giant tankers by Pertamina”. Toruan did apology for the mistakes and offered right to reply. The Post then published an article headlined “Pertamina clarifies tanker tender bids”, which contains the company’s explanation of its selection process for the winning bidder of the tender for the two tankers. Pertamina has withdrawn its libel lawsuit.
Moral of the story is an editorial based on erroneous data is dangerous. It is not only providing erroneous information, but also helping form faulty opinions among the public, which could be the basis of flawed decision-making. As a professional and ethical imperative, editorial writers must therefore consult sources of information other than their own media organizations. (Luis V Teodoro, 2004).
In the case of the “Tentacles of Corruption”, the writer should do check and double-check to the Pertamina and not only rely on the news pages of their media organization.
Prof. Teodoro also mentioned that completeness is the companion of accuracy. Editorial writers are often admonished not to rely on half-truths and to instead assure that the opinions they express are based on information that is complete.
Back in 1997, then research and technology minister B.J. Habibie tried to sue the Post for Rp.500 billion (US$210 million) after it ran an editorial and articles suggesting the deadly crash of a CN-235 cargo plane might have been due to faults with the aircraft. Six people died when the aircraft went down on a training flight over West Java province on 22 May 1997.
Habibie’s lavishly funded Indonesian State Aircraft Industry, Dirgantara Indonesia, manufactured the CN-235. Habibie was furious because of the following paragraph: “But a source told the Jakarta Post that fire was seen billowing from the fuselage of the plane before it crashed. The source also said there were indications that one of the plane’s propellers broke before the fire started”.
An official investigation concluded the accident occurred because a rope tying down the plane’s cargo had broken and shifted the load, causing the aircraft to stall and crash.
Regarding the Jakarta Post editorial perspective, sometimes they merely echoing conventional views, but more often they present a fresh perspective and interpretation of events that helpful to readers. For example, the Jakarta Post editorials always support “Anti-criminalization of the press” and “No prison for journalists”. In the meantime, majority of Indonesian society and judges are still believe that press and journalists are not above the law. Misleading news is a crime and it’s not press freedom.
But as a whole, I believe that the Jakarta Post editorials can be a guide for citizens in understanding the daily events in the news. They also can help shape informed public opinion by being an advocate of citizen rights and liberties.
The objective of publishing the Jakarta Post was to present to the public a newspaper of the highest quality that would provide its readers with all the news that was not only fit to print, but that would deepen their insight into the very workings of this vast archipelago, its people and its government, as members of the great family of nations.
At certain level, I must admit that the objective has been partially accomplished.
After reading 30 editorials randomly from January 2004 to January 2005, I find two models editorial writing in the Jakarta Post. These two models are compromise model (CM) and watchdog model (WM).
Compromise model are written not for criticize directly toward policies and actions of public officials or actors. CM editorials, even though have critical elements, are being written with nice and pleasant way. The purpose of CM editorials is to avoid direct confrontation with subjects or targets, which is being discuses, or criticize. Sometimes the writers blur its messages with euphemism.
For example, on 3 October 1994, the Jakarta Post wrote editorial as a comment on political speeches by national leader. President Soeharto said that openness should not be carried out too far. Excessive openness, in Soeharto opinion, will inevitably lead to chaos and anarchy.
The writer tried to avoid direct confrontation with President Soeharto by using “otoh-botoh” method to make an unclear message. Otoh-botoh is English words for “on the one hand…but on the other hand…”. In this kind of editorials, the writers could not tell it as it is. Instead of to the point, the writers use moderation in explaining the truth or in delivering the messages.
Read the unclear message as follow:
“On the one hand, we think that no Indonesian in his or her right mind wants chaos and anarchy in our society. The lesson that we can learn from Haiti, Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina is clear enough: chaos and anarchy bring about only destruction, suffering and misery to the nation”.
“On the other hand, no Indonesian who truly believes in Pancasila can tolerate policies that suppress the growth of openness in our society. Without openness it will be next to impossible to implement and uphold humanitarianism, people’s sovereignty, and social justice--three of the five principles of Pancasila--in our society”.
In the same editorial, we can find another “otoh-botoh” sentences.
“Openness in our society means simply that holders of public office must keep the public informed concerning matters of vital concern. Chaos and anarchy, on the other hand, are consequences of failure to restrain ourselves and failure to respect rules regarding public order”.
Thus, in this editorial, it is not the government officials to be blame for chaos and anarchy, but “ourselves” meaning society as a whole.
Euphemism is a linguistic terminology, meaning “the substitution of an inoffensive term for one that is considered offensively explicit”. It has been an established practice in some the Jakarta Post editorials to use euphemisms for purpose of “softening” or “polishing” expressions.
The Jakarta Post editorial, which decides to adopt euphemisms, does so, usually, for the purpose of promoting politeness in written communication, to avoid expressions that can be offensive. This is the real purpose of euphemisms.
The word euphemism stems from the Greek word euphemia, which means “use of good words”, while the Greek word euphemizein means “to speak with good words”.
Second model of the Jakarta Post editorials is watchdog model (WM). In this kind of editorials, the writers able to speak bravely, blunt, to the point, and tell it as it is. The writers also dare to criticize directly and have no fear to express their views. There are no attempts to use euphemism.
For example, in its editorial on 11 November 2004, the Jakarta Post pointed its fingers to the investigators of the multi-billion-bank scandal.
“But nothing could be as tragic as when the very people whom we have entrusted to lead the campaign against corruption are themselves corrupt. Sadly, it has long been an open secret that in this country, justice is for sale”.
On 27 December 2004, under the title “Neighborly tempers”, the editorial blatantly criticizes fierce reaction of Indonesian officials to Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s remarks concerning religious militants in his country being trained in Malaysia and Indonesia. According to the Jakarta Post, the somewhat fierce reaction of Indonesian officials to Thaksin’s comments was understandable, but unnecessary.
“They should know –even better than Thaksin himself—that this vast archipelago has been used for years as a training ground for terrorists. One only has to look at the numerous deadly attacks here as evidence. Thus whenever anyone makes any statement about terrorism and Indonesia, at the very least there is probably a grain of truth in it.”
“The most important part of Thaksin’s statement was that he did not say that the Indonesian government was sponsoring or purposely allowing these activities to take place, neither did he say that the Indonesian people were supporting terrorist elements”.
Indonesian media, including the Jakarta Post, is now one of the freest presses in Asia. The degree of press freedom in Indonesia has gone up and down, in tandem with political climate. The press freedom during Soeharto era was bad. Soeharto regime maintains that journalists must be silenced, because freedom will result in anarchy, conflict, and instability.
After the downfall of Soeharto in May 1998, Indonesian media began enjoying its freedom. Press Law No.40/1999 stated, “Freedom of the Press is guaranteed as a basic right of citizens”. No more censorship. The government has no right to ban publications or close down newspapers.
This freedom can be seen at the Jakarta Post editorials in the last five years. Under Soeharto regime, for the sake of its survival, the editorials seem to “speak with the good words”. But, in the post-Soeharto era, for the sake of freedom, the editorials dare to tell it as it is. The writers are able to express their views and deliver their messages creatively. Sometimes they use irony. Another time they use sarcasm.
Over all, the Jakarta Post editorials, especially in the year of 2004, have passed the test of both public service and technical excellence. The Jakarta Post proudly declares its new motto; “If the best is possible, good is not enough”. At certain point, I would agree with the motto of the Post, one and only English newspaper in Indonesia. But, of course, the Jakarta Post editorial is nothing if we compare with the editorials of the New York Times or the Guardian.
In the kingdom of the blind men, a man with one eye is the king!
Yes, the Jakarta Post is the king in the world of very limited English newspaper in Indonesia.