Writing Under Duress
Goenawan Mohamad tries to stop the fire
By Felix Cheong
Goenawan Mohamad, Indonesian poet, and founder and editor of the influential weekly magazine Tempo, was born in 1941 in a small town in Central Java. He grew up in a family whose destiny was intricately tied to politics. His parents were detained in the 1920s in an internment camp for their involvement in a left-wing nationalist movement. In 1947, his father was re-arrested and executed.
As a young poet in his 20s living in Jakarta, Goenawan was drawn into a bitter literary and political controversy when he signed a manifesto protesting social realism in the arts, which was being imposed by the then powerful Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Deemed a 'counter-revolutionary', Goenawan fled to Europe with the help of friends, and studied in Belgium.
Back in Jakarta in 1971, he co-founded Tempo, which despite a two-month ban in 1984, managed over the years to carve out an independent voice in an increasingly controlled political environment. It was eventually banned in 1994, driving Goenawan and his colleagues to write in a network of underground publications until reviving Tempo in 1998, after President Suharto's fall.
Goenawan has won a Harvard University Nieman Fellowship for journalism and the International Press Freedom Award of the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 1999, he was nominated by World Press Review as International Editor of the Year.
The sprightly 62-year-old poet was in Singapore in January for the Wordfeast Poetry Festival. Felix Cheong interviewed him over coffee at the Swissötel The Stamford’s café.
FC: As someone who’s been in the press for more than 30 years, what’s your definition of free press... one that’s arrogant?
GM: An arrogant press is better than an arrogant government in power. At least it has no monopoly on violence. [When] the state has a monopoly on violence and it’s arrogant, it is dangerous.
The question is how you would define which behaviour is arrogant and which is not, and who is entitled to give such a definition or criteria.
My idea of free press is a press that doesn’t have to have a permit, a license, from the government to publish, a press that is not open to censorship, from behind the doors or from above.
FC: Under current president Megawati, is there greater press freedom in Indonesia?
GM: [The greater press freedom was] not because of Megawati, but was in fact started by Habibie. The first move to free the press was under Habibie’s administration. Megawati just followed the rule, because the law now prohibits the government from censoring the media.
It’s just a question of whether things have changed a little bit since Habibie’s time.
FC: You once compared being an editor with being the captain of a hijacked plane. Was there any point over the past 30 years when you feared for your life and your family’s?
GM: Not that dramatic! But of course, the pressure was there. I don’t think the Suharto regime would have touched me physically. It had already created a problem by arresting Pramoedya [Ananta Toer] and banning his novels from being read. I don’t think they would’ve liked to repeat the same mistake by arresting me.
FC: But was there harassment?
GM: Harassment – in the sense that sometimes you’re summoned by the department of information and threatened.
After Tempo’s ban, I joined an alliance of independent journalists that protested the banning and censorship and licensing. Three of the members were jailed because we published an illegal underground newspaper. We worked mostly underground. That was very risky, yes.
FC: Has it ever occurred to you that Tempo might, at some point, cease to be relevant?
GM: To be honest, I’ve never thought about that, because it’s hard to measure your relevance. The only thing you get is the response from the public – letters to the editor, sales, and the way the magazine is being used as part of the public discourse. Otherwise, we could never guess how relevant we were.
FC: Has the editorial team done a lot of soul-searching about the role of the magazine in Indonesian society today?
GM: We did a lot of self-censorship in the past. We made a mistake by doing this. Like, the situation in East Timor could’ve been better if there were a free press. Many abuses of human rights could’ve been prevented if the government could just allow the press to stand up and report what had happened.
We had our mistakes; we made our compromises.
FC: Such as?
GM: I remember there was a group of young ethic Chinese men who came to my office and told me their father was being tortured by the local military. He was arrested and accused of selling pornography, and tortured and murdered. They wanted this story to be out, but I didn’t dare [report it]. So I feel guilty about it.
FC: So the role of the journalist is not just to report the facts but to also be responsible for exposing evil?
GM: It’s not about exposing. It’s about giving the voice to people who have no means or access to speak, or to express their need for survival. Exposure is only the consequence of that kind of journalistic duty.
Journalism is not to tell the truth, because sometimes we don’t know about the truth. Journalism is part of a common effort to tell the truth, to the best of knowledge and information. We should not be regarded as the messenger of truth and justice. It would be presumptuous.
Sometimes people think freedom is something akin to responsibility. Actually, if you’re not free, you’re not responsible. How can you be responsible if you’re not free? Parrots cannot responsible. Robots cannot be responsible.
When you have freedom, you can say something that can help people from being abused. And that’s responsibility.
It’s also the media’s responsibility to tell the government not to make mistakes. It’s kind of an early warning system. That could also be part of promoting the quality of public debate and discourse. That’s also responsibility.
FC: How is journalism as practised in the West different from that in the East?
GM: Let’s not think of journalism as a monolithic entity. There’re many different kinds of newspapers, many different kinds of media. For example, I don’t really like American television. But I’d be happy to read the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times as examples of good journalism. Different degrees of quality and sense of responsibility among different media in the world.
The [notion that the] difference between western and eastern media is mostly ideological – it’s not true. It’s not accurate.
I don’t think The Straits Times is, in that sense, very Asian, expressing Asian values. What are those values actually? You have to answer those questions.
FC: Has Goenawan the journalist ever interfered with Goenawan the poet?
GM: Yes, oftentimes. When I was an editor, I hardly wrote any poetry. I started to be active only towards the later part of my career as editor.
The language used is different. In poetry, you don’t negotiate. You don’t quote other people. You quote yourself, something that’s closer to yourself.
That’s why I’m no longer a journalist, basically. I just write my column once a week, that’s all. I don’t even have an office in Tempo.
You have a Senior Minister. I’m a Senior Editor. That’s powerful though… not as influential as Mr Lee Kuan Yew – he’s an institution, I’m not.
I interviewed him before he came to Jakarta for the first time. Long time ago. Very smart, very bright. Of course, he was a man in power; I’m not. So, different perspective. But no doubt a first-class brain. Not that I like him.
FC: Auden once said poetry makes nothing happen. To what extent do you agree with this?
GM: That’s a normal excuse of a poet: that you write poetry that claims it’s going to make things happen. And then he’d sit back and do nothing. A poet is just like an ordinary citizen or human being. When there’s a fire you have to stop the fire, not write about it. Otherwise, you won’t be part of the world.
Let’s remember that Mao Zedong’s poetry didn’t change the world. His revolution did. So it’s not enough just to be a poet. You have to have people too.
FC: Writer, journalist, editor, activist: by which label would you like to be remembered?
GM: A writer. I’m not really an activist. I was forced to be an activist. I prefer to write.
FC: What’s next for Goenawan Mohammad?
GM: Writing, writing, writing, dying. I don’t know what retirement is. I’m a retired editor. I’m no longer in charge. A new person has taken my place. I’m happy with it. So technically, I’m retired now. But can you retire from writing? Maybe you could, when you feel your writing has become very stupid, predictable. Then you should stop writing. But not many writers are aware of that decline. I don’t know whether I’m on the decline. I hope I’m still good in my skills.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004