Breaking the Code

ONE fugitive, Dharmono K. Lawi, does not refuse interviews. Former Speaker of the Banten Regional House of Representatives was not only interviewed by journalists, but he also appeared on a television program. Through the mass media, Lawi has voiced his protest. He felt that the legal institutions had treated him unfairly, so he decided to flee.

Lawi’s appearance in front of the press annoyed Attorney General Abdul Rahman Saleh. “People now say that if journalists are able to meet the fugitive. Why can’t we?” he said. For that reason, Saleh has asked the journalists who met Lawi to give an account of their meeting to the prosecutor’s office. “They should help us,” he added.

According to Saleh, these corruptors have escaped national justice. Journalists have the same civic responsibilities as the rest of the population. “It is true that journalists have a code of ethics, but they also have civic duties like ordinary citizens,” said Saleh.

As the legal base for his statement, Saleh pointed to the Regulations on the Elimination of Corruption. He stated that according to chapter 13 of the regulations, every citizen, including journalists, must aid the government in resolving a corruption case by giving the required information. “The only exception in this regulation is for priests,” he said.

Journalists cannot easily abide by this regulation. “We are indebted by the trust we have earned from our sources and the public,” said ANTV general manager of current affairs, Ivan Haris. According to Haris, the journalist’s code of ethics maintains that the journalist must keep the source’s identity secret if he/she asks for it. “Furthermore, journalists are not an intelligence unit,” added Haris. The prosecution called Haris after Lawi’s performance in the ANTV Wanted program.

A Press Council member, Leo Batubara, supported Haris’s statement. According to him, it is impossible for a journalist to give away his/her source to the prosecution, including corruptors. “A reporter’s duty is to fulfill the needs of the public, not the prosecution,” said Batubara. “If they give away their sources, the public won’t trust them anymore and they will be considered a police agent,” he added.

Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, a senior journalist who was also the former senior editor of Indonesia Raya newspaper, emphasized that the public’s trust is fundamental to a journalist. To breach this principle is to break the code of ethics. “Which is as bad as reporting false news,” he said. According to Astraatmadja, breaking the code of ethics will damage not only the journalist’s credibility, but also that of the mass media and the press in Indonesia.

He hopes that the journalists will follow in the steps of the late H.B. Jassin who kept his source’s identity a secret and went to jail for it. Jassin refused to reveal the identity of Ki Panjikusmin who wrote a short story titled ‘The Sky is Getting Darker.’ The account was published in Sastra magazine in 1968 and was intended to humiliate Muslims. Jassin was brought to trial and sentenced to one year in jail. To this day, nobody knows who Ki Panjikusmin is.

Astraatmadja then gave another example. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two Washington Post journalists, kept secret the identity of their source for 35 years. Mark Felt, had supplied them with information on the Watergate scandal involving President Nixon, and surrendered his own identity to the public after more than 30 years. “It is very important for journalists to keep the public’s trust or they will lose their credibility,” he said.

A penal law expert from the Law Faculty of the University of Indonesia, Rudi Satryo Mukantardjo, stated that it is acceptable if the attorney general’s statement was only a request. “Because journalists have a code of ethics which forbids them from giving away the identity of those sources who wish to remain anonymous,” he said. According to Mukantardjo, a journalist is usually willing to
suffer sanctions in honor of this code.

Saleh realizes that he is playing a losing game against the code. He understands the journalists and their code of ethics. “But, please, let us talk about it,” he said.

Abdul Manan, Maria Hasugian

Tempo Magazine, No. 14/VII/Dec 05 – 12, 2006

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