- In 1968, he rose to managing editor of Mochtar Lubis’s crusading Indonesia Raya until President Soeharto banned the paper in 1974, blacklisting Atmakusumah.
- In 1992, Atmakusumah joined the staff of Dr. Soetomo Press Institute, a postgraduate training school for journalists, where he guided the Institute through the waning days of the Soeharto dictatorship and became a spokesperson of stature in defense of a freer press.
- In the late 90s, Atmakusumah was instrumental in lobbying for a law that denies the Indonesian government authority to ban, censor, or license the press or to withhold any pertinent information.
- The RMAF Board of Trustees recognizes his “formative role in laying the institutional and professional foundations for a new era of press freedom in Indonesia.”
For long years, the Indonesian press cowered beneath the vengeful power of the Soeharto dictatorship. Bold writers and editors tested the system’s limits from time to time, and clever ones maneuvered around them. But caution was the watchword. The habits of caution, however, did not prepare Indonesia’s media for the breathtaking change that followed Soeharto’s fall from power in 1998. This is something ATMAKUSUMAH ASTRAATMADJA often points out. As head of Dr. Soetomo Press Institute, he has labored to make press freedom a cornerstone of Indonesia’s new democratic edifice and, at the same time, to inculcate in the Indonesian media the profound responsibilities that freedom brings.
ATMAKUSUMAH learned the fragility of press freedom early. He was a nineteen-year-old cub reporter at Mochtar Lubis’s crusading Indonesia Raya when, in 1958, President Sukarno abruptly closed the newspaper down. After working abroad as a radio broadcaster in Australia and Germany, ATMAKUSUMAH returned to Indonesia in 1965, just prior to the coup d’etat that ushered in Soeharto’s New Order. Working with Lubis again from 1968, he rose to managing editor of the revitalized Indonesia Raya. When Soeharto banned the paper in 1974, ATMAKUSUMAH was blacklisted. Finding steady work at the American embassy, he joined a quiet dialogue among thoughtful dissidents and waited for better times.
In 1992, ATMAKUSUMAH joined the staff of Dr. Soetomo Press Institute, a postgraduate training school for journalists. As executive director from 1994, he guided the Institute through the waning days of the Soeharto dictatorship and became a spokesperson of stature in defense of a freer press. In the courts, he testified on behalf of editors and publishers accused of defaming the president in underground publications. And at the Institute, he taught students to investigate, probe, evaluate, and analyze the world around them aggressively. In time, he told them hopefully, they would be able to practice these skills in Indonesia.
When Indonesia’s new government abandoned many Soeharto-era controls after May 1998, ATMAKUSUMAH worked assiduously behind the scenes to ensure that a draft media bill carried no vestige of government regulation. The result is a milestone. Passed in September 1999, the law denies government the authority to ban, censor, or license the press or to withhold any pertinent information. It also mandates the creation of a wholly independent national Press Council. ATMAKUSUMAH was an architect of the council and in May 2000 he was elected its first chairman.
In the meantime, publications of all kinds proliferated in Indonesia’s new democratic space. Some were shockingly raw and sensational. Even journalists began to wonder if an unfettered press was a good thing. ATMAKUSUMAH assured them that, yes, it was. While acknowledging excesses, he defended the right of publishers to violate good taste just as staunchly as the right of reporters to investigate stories aggressively. Reining in abuses was a job for the profession itself, he said, not government. He urged his colleagues to submit to discipline by their peers and to adhere to a strict code of ethics. He then helped them draft such a code. The Press Council is now guided by it. Without a moral compass, he says, “the press is like a ship that has lost its beacon in dense fog.”
In the midst of his busy life, sixty-one-year-old ATMAKUSUMAH remains a famously genial and dedicated teacher. As one of his colleagues says, ATMAKUSUMAH “can’t pass up a single conversation with a young journalist.” As for the future, he is sober. His country remains in the throes of a tumultuous political transition. “The struggle for media freedom,” he says, “is not yet over.”
In electing ATMAKUSUMAH ASTRAATMADJA to receive the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board of trustees recognizes his formative role in laying the institutional and professional foundations for a new era of press freedom in Indonesia.
Excellencies, Chairman and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is a great honour and privilege for me to become the third Indonesian journalist to receive the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts in 42 years.
The second Awardee, in 1995, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, in a way was also a journalist although he is best known internationally as a literary writer. The first Awardee from Indonesia for the same category, in 1958, happens to be my former superior, Mochtar Lubis, the editor-in-chief of Indonesia Raya (Greater Indonesia), an independent daily publishing in Jakarta. The daily — a crusading newspaper, as people call it — was banned six times during the “guided democracy” of President Soekarno and once, but fatally, by President Soeharto’s government in January 1974.
It was in 1958, 42 years ago, that as a 19-year-old cub reporter who had just begun a fledgling career as journalist for only several months, I tasted the suppression of press freedom. I wrote for the August 17 issue of Minggu (Sunday) Indonesia Raya the 17 August edition an “innocent” two-column front-page report on the first five Ramon Magsaysay Awardees including Mochtar Lubis who was then under house detention. But the Military Police who visited our office did not seem to like the piece, and warned my editor to discontinue the publication of similar reports.
The second paragraph of that report I wrote read: “The announcement (of the Board of Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation) said that Mochtar Lubis is best known in the international press circles as a fighter who has relentlessly fought against corruption in governments, violation of civil liberty by the military and the invasion of totalitarianism in Indonesia.”
Less than two months later, Indonesia Raya was forced to close down because the government refused to give a license to the newspaper. The Islamic-oriented Abadi (Eternal) daily even decided to terminate its publication on the 1st of October of the same year in opposition to the newly established licensing system. The banning of tens of press publications continued for almost four decades under both the Soekarno and Soeharto regimes.
The spirit of press freedom and free expression, however, never dies.
I am glad to be told that my election as one of the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Awardees is a symbolic appreciation for the struggle of the Indonesian journalists and other concerned activists who have fought for a free press.
I feel proud to have been able to work together with them for many years. They include organized and unorganized groups of journalists and university students, and supporters of human rights in many places throughout the country. Their deep concern for freedom and democracy prompted me to travel — oftentimes accompanied by my wife or my children — to about 30 cities and towns for the last 30 years to discuss with them, in open or closed meetings, the meaning of a free press in a democratic society.
Thank you for the honor you have done my country. This is a great encouragement for morale of the younger generations who have to continue the fight for press freedom, free expression and democracy.
Like most Indonesians, Atmakusumah Astraatmadja was given only one name, Atmakusumah, when he was born on October 20, 1938. Astraatmadja is not his surname, but the name of his paternal grandfather. When Atma was a very young boy, he was called Adam, after the first prophet of Islam. He does not remember exactly when his name was changed to Adang, which was actually a nickname. When he was in second grade, however, his father told him he would be given a new name – Atmakusumah. The first two syllables were derived from his maternal grandfather’s name, Atmadiwirija, and his father added Kusumah. The boy’s school name thus became Atmakusumah.
Years later, as a young man who was traveling abroad for the first time and needed a surname to write on his immigration form, he adopted his paternal grandfather’s name, Astraatmadja. Both his names, Atmakusumah and Astraatmadja, are of Indian origin. His wife, Sri Rumiati, a librarian by profession, has advised him that as a writer he should stick to the name he has been using since the beginning of his journalism career, so as not to confuse indexers.
Atma’s family is from the Province of Banten in West Java. His father, Junus Astraatmadja, was from the northern part of the province, where the culture is Javanese, his mother, Ratu Kartina, from the south, where the culture is Sundanese. Both his parents belonged to the priyayi, Java’s governing aristrocracy. Ratu Kartina’s family in Rangkasbitung owned vast ricelands and her name, Ratu Kartina, is in fact a title of nobility. Atma himself has a noble title but has never used it.
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