Indonesian president tells media to watch it

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JAKARTA--Indonesian President B.J. Habibie is warning the local media, wallowing in freedom after 32 years under autocrat Soeharto, that it is stretching the bounds of propriety and freedom.

The media often goes too far in its reports on the country's leaders and is flirting dangerously with innuendo and the desire for vengeance, Mr. Habibie said in a speech introducing the 1999 state budget. He warned the media is doing a disservice by spreading falsehoods and provoking public insecurities.

Indonesia's media applied strict self-censorship during the iron rule of Mr. Soeharto. It has enjoyed unprecedented freedom since Soeharto resigned last May, and has wasted no time in using the momentum from the reform movement to skewer the former strongman, his family and cronies.

The media was quick to denounce Mr. Habibie's comments, which appear to some to ape Mr. Soeharto's approach of issuing veiled threats before banning offending newspapers.

Mr. Habibie is not known as a friend of the press. It is widely believed he was responsible for the closure of ``Tempo,'' Indonesia's equivalent of ``Time,''in 1994 after ``Tempo'' lampooned his purchase as technology minister of a fleet of secondhand vessels from the former East German Navy.

He also embarked on a much-publicized lawsuit against ``The Jakarta Post,'' Indonesia's largest English-language daily, in 1997 following a report on the crash of an airplane produced by his pet national aircraft manufacturer, IPTN. The suit has been quietly put on the back burner.

``Tempo'' has benefited from the new wind of press freedom. It reopened last November.

Copyright January 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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