Jakob Oetama: Indonesia’s Conscience

A river of blood turns editor into the conscience of nation

After the recent World Association of Newspapers gaffe in giving its Golden Pen of Freedom to a Myanmar editor with questionable credentials, another international award for journalism to an Asean newspaper editor might raise more cause for cynicism. This time, it shouldn't, The launch of Kompas Daily in 1965 and the trauma that followed shaped the paper into a beacon of leadership unlike any other in the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Jakob Oetama, 82, founding editor of Kompas Daily in Jakarta. was bestowed the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 7th Asian Publishing Convention in Manila, on July 12. The Asian Publishing Convention (APC) is an annual forum for print publishers to learn how to leverage digital channels profitably. APC promotes content as the core value of publishing. Previous Lifetime Awardees include Hussamuddin Yaacub of Malaysia and Doreen Weisenhaus of Taiwan.

Kompas founded as anti-Communist journal
There could have been cause for human rights concerns. Jakob Oetama founded Kompas in June 1965 with his partner Au Yong Peng Kuen (d:1980) in response to the growing influence of the Communist Party, Partai Komunis Indonesia, which became universally known as the PKI.

Both Oetama and Au Youg were Catholics at a time when atheists were considered agents of Satan. The Communists in the Soviet Union and China were systematically eliminating religion as superstition unfit for the perfect societies they promised. The Catholic Church was under siege in both countries and alarmed at the threat of more nations falling like dominoes across Asia.

The CIA was hyperactive everywhere with money, political facilitation and arms to stop Communist ideology infecting newly independent states. Generals gained hugely from this largesse. Military budgets were padded with US grants to buttress strategic backstops.

The war in Vietnam was escalating. Malaya had just emerged from a grueling 12-year Communist insurrection. China committed troops and tanks to its first indirect war with the US on the Korean Peninsula and extended clandestine military training and arms to fraternal allies in several Asian countries, including Indonesia. It was not casually that Jakob Oetama and PK Auyong decided to launch Kompas (‘compass' ) for the moral crusade to save Indonesia from the Communists. Were they financed by the CIA? We do not know and neither partner has publicly commented on their source of funds.

That may even be entirely irrelevant to the history of Kompas and the editorial leadership of Jakob Oetama, as the Communists were totally wiped out within three months of the birth of Kompas.

DN Aidit, general secretary of the PKI was an able and tireless grassroots organizer. He built the PKI into the third largest party behind only the comrades in China and the Soviet Union. PKI was well established in Central Java, East Java, Bali and northern Sumatra with energetic youth and women's wings. It had 300,000 active cadres and 2 million registered members who were well organized, disciplined and ideologically zealous.

The PKI was a potent force. Sukarno included the PKI in his tripartite power-balance of government with Islamists and nationalist intellectuals, labeling it Nasakom (Nationalism, Religion & Communism). Only he could hold this conflict-ridden coalition together with his charisma, spell-binding oratory and sheer force of personality.

He elevated DN Aidit to minister-without-portfolio, signaling that the PKI had the ear of the President. That panicked the Army, the Islamists and the Christians. An anti-PKI alliance started fermenting at the highest levels.

For the Islamists demanding shariah law, Communists were infidels to be eliminated. For Catholics like Jakob Oetama, Communism was sinister and not to be trusted. The army, lobbied and funded by the CIA, was waiting to crackdown on Communists in the way it knows best.

Six of the Army's top generals were kidnapped and murdered, their bodies dumped into a well, in the early hours of 1st October by leftist junior officers.

Somehow the momentum did not carry through to an effective power-grab – if that was indeed the intention. Instead, the next most senior general, Suharto, seized control mobilizing his Strategic Reserve Command (KOSTRAD).

Major-General Suharto declared martial law and weeded out leftist elements in the armed forces to face firing squads. He then confronted President Sukarno to sign over full authority to restore order and national security to himself.

Suharto accused the PKI of plotting a coup against the president and of murdering the six generals. They were demonized. He unleashed paramilitary death squads and tacitly encouraged Islamist vigilantes to hunt down and kill Communists and suspected Communists.

The blind orgy of killings that followed blots Indonesian history to this day. Indonesian historians cannot yet find credible evidence of a PKI plot. Were the junior leftist officers who staged the kidnappings and murders, fall guys for somebody else? They were quickly disposed of by Major-General Suharto so none can bear witness.

A 1971 study (known as the Cornell paper) by Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey suggests the 30 Sept. event as indeed an internal army coup by junior officers unhappy with blocked promotions and resentful of the decadent lifestyles of the corrupt senior generals.

They believed they were saving the president by assassinating the members of the Council of Generals who were planning to kill him. The paper finds evidence of Major-General Suharto's link to the plot by the Council of Generals. It implies he double-crossed them.

The national shock, horror and revulsion at the cold-blooded murders of the army generals allowed Major-General Suharto to seize power and sideline President Soekarno, accusing him of nurturing the PKI.

How did Jakob Oetama handle this PKI reversal?

The founders of Kompas could not have in their wildest dreams anticipated such a swift, sudden, total elimination of Communists within three months of their launch. It all happened too soon for Kompas to play any part in the downfall of the PKI.

The partners found themselves abruptly at the ringside, watching organized vengeance visited violently on citizens whose sole crime was to be members or sympathisers of the PKI. The Chinese community paid a heavy price for their ethnic links.

It is estimated that 500,000 to a million people were killed, often crudely by primitive methods such as garroting with wire where guns were not available.

The efficient documentation of the PKI party machinery at every level proved a terrible consequence as the death squads had ready lists to hunt members and families by town, village, school, street and house.

Journalism of conscience
That shock jolted Jakob and PK Auyong. It changed their entire approach to the role of Kompas. The Communists were gone even before the paper got into stride. But the ugliness they witnessed in the mass murders of innocents gave rise to an uncompromisingly ‘humanistic' journalism which distinguishes Kompas to this day.

The Catholic founders committed post-PKI Kompas to a journalism grounded in empathy, inclusiveness and non-partisan reporting. The paper spoke to all Indonesians, reminding them of their national responsibility beyond narrow sectarian prejudices. Kompas avoided becoming a vehicle for ruling party or anti-government propaganda.

in 2011 then deputy chief editor of Kompas, Trias Kunchahyono described Jakob's leadership style as "more like a parent ... he tries to embrace everyone as a big family" and that he always settles conflicts "in an elegant manner." Trias went on to add "Jakob reminds us of Kompas' values and philosophy...of tolerance in writing the news, that there is a human side to events...it is not just about statistics."

University Gajah Madha Rector Sofjan Effendi singles out the 4 pages of Editorials and Opinions in Kompas: "Pak Jakob has consistently developed a style of journalism that is non-confrontational. Editorials do not pin blame or take sides. They speak to citizens of the collective responsibility to resolve issues as a nation."

‘Kompas calms the nation'
Veven Wardhana, director at the Institute for Media and Social Studies remarks that "Some newspapers blow problems out of proportion and are provocative. Some others tend to calm. Kompas calms the nation."

In his memoirs published 2001 on his 70th birthday, Pers Indonesia: Berkomunikasi dalam Masyarakat Tidak Tulus (Indonesian Press: Communicating in an Insincere Society), Jakob Oetama says "Human beings and humanity's trials, problems, aspirations, desires, nobility and abjections are the factors placed centrally in Kompas' vision." He commits Kompas to ‘comforting the poor and reminding the prosperous'.

In a country 86 percent Muslim with only 3 percent Catholic citizenry, Kompas is the quality press of national record with daily sales of 500,000 copies reaching 1.8 million elite readers in government, corporations and urban homes. Kompas exerts disproportionate influence on national policy and remains the Keeper of the nation's conscience.

(Cyril Pereira is co-chair of the Asian Publishing Convention)

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