Indonesians rally against clampdown on press: Banning of news magazines reverses recent move by Jakarta towards openness

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The Independent Online
INDONESIAN security forces kicked and beat demonstrators in Jakarta yesterday as rallies for press freedom began to spread through the country.

The South-east Asian archipelago of 180 million people was stunned last week when the government of President Suharto closed three news magazines, suddenly reversing a recent trend towards greater political openness.

'Last week they said you cannot publish, today there is beating, tomorrow I don't know what - maybe shooting,' said Fikri Jufri, former editor of Tempo, one of the banned magazines. 'This is just unbelievable - it is contradictory to the wave of development economically and politically in Indonesia.'

Mr Fikri's sentiments were echoed by diplomats, businessmen and the demonstrators in central Jakarta yesterday, protesting against the government's return to heavy-handed tactics to control dissent.

General Suharto, 73, came to power after a failed Communist coup in 1965 that led to a bloodbath of retribution, leaving over 500,000 people dead. Since then he has kept a tight rein on the country, while working hard, mostly with success, to develop the economy. Indonesia is today self-sufficient in food, and had a GDP growth rate of 6.6 per cent last year. Thirty years ago people were dying of starvation on the streets of Jakarta.

But with economic development has come a greater demand for political openness, and in the past year in particular Tempo magazine had been in the forefront of a campaign to expose official corruption and make politicians more accountable.

The immediate cause of Tempo's banning was a story it wrote about a questionable pounds 730m deal to buy 39 ships from the former East German navy. The deal was brokered by the technology minister, B J Habibie, apparently against the advice of the Indonesian navy itself. General Suharto intervened personally to defend Mr Habibie earlier this month, making a speech that criticised Tempo for its article.

'I don't understand this,' said Mr Jufri. 'It will damage all the good things he has already done. Many ministers are also shrugging their shoulders.' General Suharto was re-elected to another five- year term as president in March 1993, after which he initiated an 'openness campaign'.

A bigger demonstration has been planned for tomorrow in front of the parliament. Smaller protests have also been reported in Yogyakarta and Surabaya.

(Photograph and map omitted)