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Press Freedom versus Military Bureaucracy

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-06-16

“I detest what you write” said Voltaire “but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” This philosophy of free speech, the cornerstone of all modern democracies, tends to be taken for granted in much of Western Europe, North America and Australasia.

In other places (in much of Africa and large areas of Asia for example) anywhere dictatorships flourish - societies which lock up people for their opinions - lip service tends to be paid to democratic/free speech ideals, even if they are not practised.

Indonesia under its last, unlamented president Suharto, (forced from office in 1998 and now coming under scrutiny for his ill gotten millions) was a good example of this syndrome. Despite a thuggish military which followed its own agenda, killing, plundering, torturing and raping at will, there was state ideology proclaiming justice for all.

I lived in Indonesia in the early 1990s when Suharto’s reign of terror looked as if it would run its course until the old man had heart failure and his children had secured every business monopoly in the land.

Working as a journalist there was a delicate business. The appalling suffering Suharto and his generals inflicted on anyone who dared oppose him, made we reporters careful of what we wrote. We were always aware that we were treading a fine line between the truth as we saw it and the acceptable government line.

Eventually I had a run in with the men in green over a story I wrote about a young Javanese woman, Marsinah, who had been abducted and raped by the Indonesian military. It was not a pleasant confrontation, but at least I emerged from it intact, a fate not granted some of my Indonesian and Western colleagues.

Suharto and his cronies were essentially a bunch of gangsters in the guise of a legitimate government. (Some would argue that all governments are this in varying degrees). He had seized power bloodily and ruled a vast, ramshackle empire, doling out favors to his friends, salting away his billions and making sure his children were at least in the multi-millionaire class. Suharto’s personal wealth was reckoned at $15 billion when he was finally forced from office, while his family made do with another $15 billion between them.

If you wanted to get to Jakarta’s airport without becoming ensnarled in traffic, you needed to use a toll road. (Shades of 18th century Europe). These were short, strategically placed and owned by Suharto’s eldest daughter Ketut. They cost 3000 rupiah to travel on (about $1.60) and helped, along with other enterprises such as owning a local TV station, to make Ketut, in her forties, a very rich woman. She never flaunted her wealth though. Rather than appear dripping in jewelry , she dressed demurely always appearing in public in a Moslem head scarf, opening hospitals and kissing babies – the dutiful, public spirited daughter of the Great Man.

The business culture in Jakarta involved a lot of brown envelopes. If you wanted to cut a deal, brown envelopes stuffed with cash or large checks had to be distributed in the right quarters. The biggest deals almost always involved the Suharto family and their cronies. Suharto’s wife Tien was known as Mrs Ten percent, though the nickname had later to be dropped when she became too greedy. She was henceforth known as Madame Fifty-Fifty.

The concept of free speech in this type of society was a non-starter. Taboo subjects for reporters included specultating when Suharto might retire. Always though, the pretence of democratic free ideals was maintained, in such institutions as the absurd rubber stamping parliament, half of whose members were picked by the dictator himself.

Similar pretences were maintained during the Cold War, when the least democratic places, usually had the word ‘democratic’ or ‘popular’ in the name of the country. Thus the former East Germany was the ‘German Democratic Republic’. Today that well known bastion of liberalism, respect for human rights and publisher of a lively free press, is called ‘The Peoples’ Republic of China.’

Communist bureaucracies cannot be expected to be flexible or to move with the times, particularly if they are also gerontocracies. The old revolutionaries, still mentally living

the heroic days of Mao and his glorious revolution, have about as much chance of being open to new ideas as a humming bird has of flying to Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.

What is striking about Indonesia and China, for most of the last half century, is that they are essentially the same type of society, despite one being staunchly capitalist and the other hard-line communist. Both have privileged elites prepared to be extremely ruthless in the protection of those privileges.

Soviet Russia similarly had a small, powerful, vicious elite, with country cottages outside Moscow, special shops with the finest goods reserved only for members of the inner party. The masses, constantly eulogized by state propaganda, made do with shoddy goods, interminable shortages, endless queues and a meager standard of living.

The Western Democracies, despite our Cold War victory, should not however be complacent. We also have our enemies of free speech, our hidebound, unimaginative unproductive ranks living on our taxes, who spend far too much time protecting their backs and doing nothing during their “working” days. The upper echelons of these always live well and have fat pensions to look forward to when they retire. They are called bureaucrats and they exist in every country.

Police forces are another type of bureaucratic structure notorious for wasting half their energy on making sure their colleagues have no damaging evidence about their conduct to cause them future misfortune. Just as they make sure the procedure around the criminals they arrest is laboriously recorded in triplicate, so they tend to watch their own backs obsessively and cover every possible eventuality of backstabbing by colleagues, by doing more of that form filling in triplicate.

This over cautiousness is a characteristic of all bureaucracies. When it comes to military bureaucracies the caution is compounded by political sensitivities and secrecy for security purposes. These are inevitable facts of life for military institutions. But they seem to create a culture of over-caution that threatens to undermine the very ideals the military is supposed to stand for in the first place.

It is a common complaint among military members that although they are supposed to stand for the defense of freedom, they often have very little of it in their own lives.

Likewise the free flow of (non-military) information should be one of the fundamentals of service life, but it is not. The top brass seem nervous even of the most innocuous information, if it has the slightest, remotest, tangential possibility of casting them in a bad light.

In the first edition of Japan Update I edited, we ran a story about a prehistoric comb which had been found on Camp Lester. This prompted several phone calls from a Marine archaeologist claiming we needed military permission before printing the story.

I pointed out that we had not originated the story, merely picked it up from a Japanese language newspaper. Had the military made the same request to the Japanese paper? I asked the archaeologist. He remained silent.

Although I felt I was being warned off, I decided to ignore the warning because the matter was so trivial and I was interested in finding out more about the 5000 year old comb.

I commissioned a reporter to write an in-depth article about the find. She went through the necessary protocols, wrote her piece and the archaeologist was very pleased. He telephoned me to say we had covered the archaeological find better than any other paper, including ones with more resources than us, like Stars And Stripes.

I was pleased he was pleased. But why, given this enthusiasm I wondered, was it necessary to go through the absurd quibbling about bureaucratic permissions, which could easily have resulted in no second story? Don’t tell me the comb site was of sensitive strategic importance.

A few issues later a reader named Peter Simpson wrote us a letter about a navy officer facing court martial for refusing an anti-anthrax vaccination. This prompted another phone call from a sinister sounding individual wanting to know the whereabouts of Peter Simpson. He divulged only that he was “an attorney” from “the government.” As this conversation was taking place on Japanese soil I asked which government he meant. The U.S. one he told me in gravelly, menacing tones. I kept him on hold for a while and he went away.

Recently a new newspaper was founded on Okinawa called Gateway Network News. Japan Update has been feeling lonely for some time, so it’s good to have a worthy competitor. We hope the new publication gains strength and becomes our friendly rival.

It seems though, they are already having problems with the brass. They have not gained permission to be distributed on some bases because they have not followed to the letter some protocol procedures.

The feeling among some powers that be is that they “do not want two papers to police.” What is there to “police”? Scanning the paper, there is almost nothing controversial in it. A historical examination of the island’s reversion to Japanese rule looks at both sides of the Base Question. Another column publicizes community activities on one of the bases.

Military officials sometimes complain that Japan Update is quick to publicize any wrongdoing, criminal acts or illegal behavior by military members but that we are reluctant to write stories about Marines clearing up old ladies’ back yards and other civic acts. All we can say is that this is an issue about news values rather than military bashing. After all would any newspaper put on its front page an account of a girl guides street clean-up in preference to a murder?

I received a complaint this week from someone who objected to our placing a story about illegal acts by military members on the front page, while stories on Okinawan robbers and a knifeman were relegated to page four. Isn’t this being a little over sensitive? Acts by Okinawan criminals do not result in letters of complaint from local politicians to foreign institutions (the American military) and letters to the Japanese Foreign Ministry

In Tokyo. Illegal acts by the American military do, therefore they are more newsworthy and so they are given front page space over crimes with a purely local angle.

The complainant (hiding behind a cloak of anonymity – why?) may believe prevailing news values are wrong. But he/she is in the minority. News that grabs the attention and has a dramatic impact is often negative news. It is sad, but true, that people generally don’t want to read that 3000 jumbo jets around the world landed safely yesterday. They do want to read about an air crash.

There have been attempts in the past to ban or limit Japan Update’s on-base distribution. The officers who consider that our paper undermines their troops’ morale, would never consider such an action if they were back in the United States. Can you imagine the uproar if a military base in say, Florida, tried to prevent a local newspaper from entering its gates? What on earth makes them think this approach is appropriate because they are on an island in the Pacific? If the justification is that a heightened war preparedness here makes censorship necessary, I would say that is disingenuous nonsense.

Attempts to ban us have always failed in the past. The threat of internationalizing a story about an institution supposed to stand for freedom, not allowing free press circulation, has always scared off the ban-the-press brigade.

With the island about to be deluged with all the world’s press during the G8 Summit, now is not the time to get censorious again. There would be nothing our friends in the international media would like better than to give worldwide coverage to stories about American Pacific bases getting over-paranoid about what is written about them.

All we can say is: back off a bit, guys. You do your job and we’ll do ours and so will Gateway Network News, if they are allowed to. If we didn’t print something sometimes that annoyed somebody somewhere we would be a very boring paper indeed. We don’t want that and I’m sure you don’t either.

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