INDONESIA: Kompas journalist Maria fights injustice

Social injustice has long prevailed in Indonesia which is one of the main concerns of Maria Margaretha Hartiningsih

Pacific Media Watch
Thursday, December 11, 2003

By T. Sima Gunawan

JAKARTA (Jakarta Post/Pacific Media Watch): Social injustice has long prevailed in Indonesia. And this is one of the main concerns of Maria Margaretha Hartiningsih, the winner of this year's Yap Thiam Hien human rights award.

Maria, a senior journalist with the Kompas daily for almost 20 years, won the award because of her consistency in struggling against injustice through her writings.

The prize, named after a human rights lawyer, was first awarded in 1992 in an effort to improve human rights in Indonesia.

Maria said she was surprised when she learned about her nomination for the award and automatically objected as she never considered herself a human rights defender. But her colleagues assured her that she deserved the award, and that she could also serve as an inspiration to other journalists.

"I was only doing my job and I chose to focus on injustice," said Maria modestly.

When she covered tourism, for example, instead of highlighting the glamour of the tourism industry, she dug out problems that many overlook, such as women trafficking. In covering the housing sector, Maria wrote more about the need for affordable homes for the poor than the luxury housing market.

She is grateful to her colleagues and superiors at the daily, who gave her room to develop her interests and always encouraged her to move forward.

To make a difference, Maria has had to work really hard. She is never satisfied with the information provided by official sources and always checks the facts in the field to avoid "talking news."

Surprisingly, Maria said that becoming a journalist was actually not something she had wanted to do in the first place.

"I've liked writing since I was a child, but I didn't have any desire to become a journalist," she said.

Born in Semarang, Central Java, in 1954, Maria led a hard life with her mother, a poor vendor, after her father abandoned the family when Maria was only a year and a half old. Due to financial problems, her mother sent Maria to live with an uncle in Bogor, West Java.

She later returned to Semarang, but after she finished junior high school, she went to Bogor again as her mother could not afford to send her to senior school. Her uncle then sent her to a chemistry high school.

To nurture her love of writing, she enrolled at the then Institute of Publicity (now called the Institute of Social and Political Studies (ISIP)) in Lenteng Agung, South Jakarta.

Two years after she was had joined Kompas she got an offer to work at Hilversum radio in the Netherlands, but she turned it down despite the attractive salary and benefits.

"I believed my place was here at Kompas," she said.

She deals a lot with issues such as housing, tourism, the environment and gender. In her reports, she emphasizes the human side, criticizing injustice in order to improve the lives of those who are poor and marginalized.

During Soeharto's regime, press freedom was absent. But now that the door is somewhat more open, another problem has emerged. "It's about ethics," Maria said, adding that the press should uphold ethics in order to avoid abusing its new-found freedoms.

There are two other problems facing the press today: some media outlets are used as political tools, and there are people who resort to physical force against media outlets they accuse of libel, according to Maria.

"If the press gets it wrong, they should apologize, and the other party should use the right to respond to the article in question instead of resorting to violence," she said.

Maria was a visiting scholar at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington in Seattle, in 1997 and 1998. Last June, she finished her graduate program in women's studies at the University of Indonesia.

As an avid reader, Maria has a collection of more than 2000 fiction and non-fiction books.

Her favorite authors include Jumpa Lahiri, an Indian woman who lives in North America and Xin Ran from China. Her favorite local authors include Ayu Utami, NH Dini and Umar Kayam.

Traveling is another thing she likes to do. But it's not traveling abroad to see beautiful panoramas or go shopping.

"I like visiting villages and observing the rural life of the people," she said.

Maria remains single and lives with one of her cousins, his wife and their two children, in Joglo, West Jakarta.

"Being single is a choice. I am comfortable with myself and I don't care about what people say," she said.

The only thing that bothered her was her mother's expectation that she would get married.

"If the idea that I was married would make her happy, then I would be really sorry I did not make her happy. I loved her very much," said Maria, whose mother died last year when she was on her way home from covering the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

Maria lives her life, going with the flow. Believing in kharma, she is always trying to do her best.

"You harvest what you sow," she said, describing her philosophy in life.

"I have chosen to widen and to improve my knowledge to support the ideal of a better life, an order where people respect each other, where nature and all living creatures alike are also respected; where people really understand about the essence of humanity and life."