Student journalists receive press freedom award for lesbian love story battle

KBR – January 31, 2020
Student action in solidarity with Sinaga and Hastuti at USU – Undated (Pantau Foundation)

Adi Ahdiat, Jakarta – The Pantau Foundation – a Jakarta-based journalism research and training organisation – has given this year’s Oktovianus Pogau Award to Yael Sinaga and Widiya Hastuti, two student journalists from the North Sumatra University (USU) in Medan. The award was given to them for their courage in opposing press censorship on the USU campus.

“Democracy was born together with journalism. They will also die together. One of the obstacles to democracy in Indonesia is the far too frequent muzzling [of the press]”, said the chairperson of Oktavianus Pogau Award jury panel, Andreas Harsono, in a press release on Friday January 31.

“Rarely are there media, either general or campus media, which have survived for a long in Indonesia. Compare this with Harvard Crimson, the student daily from the Harvard University, which has been published without a break since 1873”, he continued.

Rector muzzles campus press

The controversy began when Sinaga published a fictional lesbian love story titled When Everyone Refuses My Presence Near Her (Ketika Semua Menolak Kehadiranku di Dekatnya) on the Suara USU (Voice of USU) campus website on March 12, 2019.

Then on March 25 USU Rector Runtung Sitepu summoned the Suara USU editorial board accusing Sinaga’s story of having content which was pornographic, homosexual and in conflict with the “values” of the USU campus. He then asked the editorial board to remove the story from their website.

The Suara USU editorial board however refused to remove the story. According to Sinaga, the campus authorities were concerned because the story could trigger a discussion on the issue of discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) group.

Sitepu then sacked the entire Suara USU editorial board and disbanded the student press secretariat without prior notice.

Sinaga and Hastuti sue rector

On August 14, Sinaga and Hastuti sued Sitepu in the Medan State Administrative Court (PTUN) with assistance from the North Sumatra Advocacy and Legal Aid Association (BAKUMSU).

The court hearings were accompanied by student protest actions in Medan and various other cities in Java and Sumatra.

On November 14, the Medan PTUN rejected Sinaga’s suit on the grounds that the muzzling of the Suara USU was in accordance with the duties and authority of the campus management.

Sinaga and Hastuti accepted the court’s ruling and did not submit an appeal so that they could continue their studies and the fight against the campus authorities by other means.

“We understand Sinaga and Hastuti’s struggle and the difficulties [they faced] in fighting against the muzzling of their newspaper. They lost the Suara USU. Press freedom and academic independence has indeed been muzzled in Medan, but it isn’t dead yet”, said Harsono in the press release.

Oktovianus Pogau Award

The Oktovianus Pogau Award is an award for courage in journalism. It was first presented by the Pantau Foundation in 2017, exactly one year after the death of Oktovianus Pogau, a journalist from West Papua who was known for his critical writing and courage in articulating the problems in Papua.

According to Coen Husain Pontoh, chief editor at the Indo Progress news portal in New York, the name Oktovianus Pogau was chosen for the award because “He came from an ethnic minority. More importantly he courageously put his life on the line to report things which other journalists were not prepared to cover related to military and police violence in Papua and the real situation in Papua”.

Oktovianus Pogau was born in Sugapa district, Intan Jaya, on August 5, 1992. He died at the age of 23 on January 31, 2016, in Jayapura.

Pogau was the founder and editor of the news portal Suara Papua. In October 2011 he became the first journalist to report on violence by security forces against hundreds of Papuans during the 3rd Papua People’s Congress in Jayapura. During the incident, three people were killed and five others jailed for treason.

Pogau often wrote about the restrictions on reporting by international journalists in West Papua and also protested against restrictions on ethnic Papuan journalists.

According to the Pantau Foundation, in May 2015 it was Pogau who also, indirectly, made President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo order the bureaucracy to stop restricting foreign journalists covering news in West Papua. Unfortunately however, to this day the order has been ignored.

Other winners of the Oktovianus Pogau Award are: In 2017, Febriana Firdaus, a freelance journalist who reported for international media such as Time and the BBC. In 2018, Citra Dyah Prastuti, a journalist who is now the chief editor of KBR and in 2019, Citra Maudy and Thovan Sugandi, two journalists from the University of Gajah Mada (UGM) campus press.

[Translated by James Balowski. The original title of the article was “Gugat Rektor Demi Bela Kebebasan Pers, Dua Mahasiswi USU Raih Penghargaan Pogau”.]