Joesoef Isak and Hasta Mitra, the “Underdog” Publisher

Joesoef Isak and Hasta Mitra, the “Underdog” Publisher

The political changes in our nation have not succeeded in changing a number of old policies.  To this day, for example, the books written by Pramoedya Ananta Toer are still officially banned from circulation. The ban issued by the Attorney General has not been formally revoked.
      However, in contrast with the earlier period, when people were hunted down like thieves only for keeping Pramoedya’s books, it is relatively easier for people to obtain Pramoedya’s works because many stores are openly offering them for sale.  People are no longer afraid to buy and keep the works of this writer, who was once blacklisted.
      Hasta Mitra, since 1980, has been the force that has consistently published the works of Pramoedya Ananta Toer.  The bans imposed each time one of these books was issued did not cause this publishing house to bow down in defeat.
      “Economically, we were beaten black and blue. The bans were imposed before many volumes were sold. It was always like that, so that we were never able to recover the capital invested,” said Joesoef Isak, the editor of Pramoedya’s books, who is one of the founders of Hasta Mitra.
      The fate of the works written by the man who was once a political prisoner on the island of Buru verges on tragedy.  Some books were in circulation for only 10 days before they were banned and pulled from circulation.  Says  Joesoef Isak, “That is what happened to The Silent Song of the Mute.”
      “The longest-lived book we published was This Eart of Mankind, Hasta Mitra’s first publication,” Joesoef adds.  The decision to ban the book was made only six months after its publication, and between 50,000-100,000 copies were sold, becoming a best-seller.
      Joesoef believes that  “the delay in enforcing the ban reflects a split in the power structure, between those who wanted to ban the book and those who were not willing to go along with that.”

To this day, the publishing house has no intention of taking the matter of the bans to court or to seek other forms of justice.
      “There are so many other problems more serious than those we experienced. So, it is not that we don’t approve [of suggestions to do so], nor that we are afraid to take the matter to court. But we feel that taking such action would not be proportional,” says Joesoef, who established Hasta Mitra with the late Hashim Rachman and Pramoedya.
      For Joesoef, the most important thing is for Hasta Mitra to continue contributing its efforts to the cause of human rights.  That the bans imposed on its books have not been revoked has posed some problems. The small amount of money invested has continued to decrease.
      “But this is part of our way of struggling for the cause of human rights for the people of Indonesia.  We are free people, we feel that we have the right to publish books,”  he states with conviction.
      That is why Hasta Mitra refuses to surrender, even though it has been subjected to a terror compaign intended to make it stop publishing Pramoedya’s works.  This founder of Hasta Mitra is aware of the fact that human rights do not come automatically.  “They must be seized and upheld through struggle,” he says.   
      Thus, despite the knowledge that the books have been banned, they continue to publish them.  They did not wait for Soeharto to fall to ensure that the books would circulate in “safety.” He adds, “We were present when Soeharto was at the height of his power.” As a result, the struggle has gained a measure of success.
      “If we had not published those books, there would be no translations of Pramoedya’s works in English, Dutch, French, Japanese and Chinese,” he says.
      A private bank officer once offered them credit when he saw how quickly Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) sold.  And a large foundation was interested in funding them. But they withdrew their offers after the government’s ban on the circulation of the books.
      A few people who admired Pramoedya’s works suggested that the books be published under an assumed name. But this suggestion – which was also made by a high government official, was rejected by the writer as a matter of principle.
      “Every book is a spiritual child of mine. Each one will experience its own fate,” says Joesoef, quoting Pramoedya.

Hasta Mitra was established one year after Pramoedya Ananta Toer was freed from detention.  The founding documents state that the publishing house was intended to publish the works of former political prisoners and works that other publishing houses would not touch.
      In the beginning, Hasta Mitra published foreign books, Japanese comic books, pharmacological works, stories of the sea, and also the works of Nobel prize winners.  However, the returns from the investments were very slow, causing Hasta Mitra to end this line of publication.  Yet Pramoedya’s works always sold immediately in large quantities.
      “In the end, Hasta Mitra became identified with Pramoedya. The label continues to stick to it,” says Joesoef.
      Around 20 books by Pramoedya, including his Buru works and works written before that time, have been republished.  Joesoef, who was once a reporter, was given the task of editing. Hasyim Rachman took care of the business side.
      “In this room Hasta Mitra began.  In this corner, Hasyim had a desk,” Joesoef pointed out the areas in his house in the Duren Tiga area of South Jakarta.
      The former Chief Editor of the daily Merdeka, also does the lay out.  He is used to doing a variety of things since the days when he was a reporter.  He left Merdeka because of political differences with BM Diah, and wrote about many things, from politics to music, sports, fashion, foreign affairs, and court reports. “I was like a coolie hired to do everything,” says the father of three children. According to Joesoef, journalists nowadays have far more knowledge of theory; journalists in his day matured in practice.
      Fortunately, in those days, ‘envelopes’  (bribery) was not the serious problem it is now.
      “There were rumours of this problem but the PWI (Association of Indonesian Journalists) in those days took firm action.  Reporters were afraid; but also, the climate of those times was not conducive to the practice of ‘envelopes’,” says the former Chair of the Jakarta branch of the PWI (1959-1963) and former Vice President of the International Organization of Journalists.


Like other ex-political prisoners, Joesoef has gone through times of uncertainty. Before he was formally arrested, from 1968-1977, he was moved from one place of detention to the next.  Sometimes he was detained for a week and released. Then he would be detained again for two weeks, released once more and detained yet again.  This went on for months.
      Because he was a journalist, and had been editor-in-chief, and had visited Eastern European countries, he was categorized as a Class A prisoner.
      “I feel I received a blessing in disguise, because I was not sent to Buru,” says the man born on the 15th July 1928.
Upon his release from prison in 1977, Joesoef began to translate foreign books. He still does this from time to time.

Kompas, 29 March 2001  

(Back page (12), with photograph of Joesoef Isak.)

Subowo bin Sukaris
HASTA MITRA Updated at: 11:39 PM