To heat government officials tell it, Indonesian journalists are all "part of the family" and their role is not to criticize their elders but to help the nation develop.

Many have a different view. While they see development as a highly desirable goal, they also see offering constructive criticism as one of their foremost tasks.

Through persistent ingenuity, reporters and editors manage to highlight soft spots in government and raise a voice of public demand for reforms. The result is that Indonesia's newspapers and magazines regularly manage to eke out a greater degree of freedom than any other national press in Southeast Asia.

Why the Indonesian papers are permitted this leeway at a time when other governments in the region are tightening the screws on journalists is not entirely clear.

The managing editor of one of Jakarta's most respected dailies said he believed the military-backed government of President Suharto realized the value of using the press as a "safety valve to let off some of the steam which builds up under repressive controls."

A senior journalist on another paper said the reson was that government leaders were willing to accept criticism, "as long as it's done in the Indonesian way - politely and obliquely. Where you foreign correspondents go wrong is to hit them right in the face with the bald facts. It's not what you say that bothers them as much as how you say it."

The government's relations with foreign correspondents have not been good. Press director Soekarno said in a recent interview that critical reports in foreign publications were impending the country's development. He threatened to "ban foreign journalists and . . . ignore their reports.

The explanation offered by one of jakarta's foremost intellectuals for the degree of feeedom enjoyed by the local press is that "the press gets away with a certain amount of criticism simply because the government is inefficient. And thank God for that inefficiency. Without it, life here would be unbearable."

Whether it's any of these reasons or a combination of them, the fact is that Indonesian journalists employ considerable skill in weaving criticism into articles that remain within official guidelines.

One favorite technique is to quote at length from articles in foreign newpapers and magazines on topics that local journalists would not be able to initiate.

Thus, in recent weeks a number of Jakarta papers interviewed ministers and for officials about foreign reports alleging corruption in Suharto's family, a massive payoff by the Hughes Aircraft Co. for a contract to build a communications network, and a claim by the former head of the state oil company that he was not to blame for leading the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

The articles generally began with brief denials of the allegations by one official or another and then rehashed the foreign reports at length. The uninformed reader, the overall impression is that the local paper was sympathetic to the government's case. The real purpose, according to one editor, was "to give the intelligent reader information he could not get otherwise."

When the Asian edition of Newsweek magazine ran a highly provocative article charging Suharto's wife with widespread corrupt practices, the capital's oldest paper, Merdeka, ran an interview with the head of the national intelligence organization.

"Mrs. Suharto .Not Corrupt. Ali Murtopo says, "was the equally provocative, but blameless, headline.

Despite an irrespressible tendency to play this sort of game, the editors of most major Indonesian publications seem to believe that too much criticism, no matter how justified, is harmful. In this, they share the view of the government.

"If our news media were to reveal the existence of a Watergate-type scandal here, they would be doing the nation a great disservice," national press director Soekarno said in an interview. "Our people look at our president with awe and respect, like a father, not just like a chairman of the board, as you seem to do in the United States."

Following the family analogy. Soekarno said: "The role of the Indonesian Press is to help in development and to help achieve positive results. They're part of the family, not a separate entity outside the family circle, to look on like a watchdog."

To make sure that the "children" do not embarrass their "father," the government employs an organization known as the Special Unit Overseeing Mass Media. This body does not censor news, but it has established general boundaries beyond which editors know they must not wander.

The result, according to one Wester-educated columnist, is to make the editor's job more nerve-wracking and, ultimately, "he tends to exercise closer censorship than the Unit would demand."

His editor cast a more positive light on the restrictions under which he operated: "Through experience we've established our own guidelines. We know the high risk areas. But what we try to do is provide a forum for dislogue. We employ writers who represent different interest groups.

"By allowing them to express their interests and dissatisfactions, we rerelieve pressures and let the government know what certain groups think.

"Of course, we tread carefully. But the whole purpose of communication is to get a particular point across. Our government is essentially a military regime and, like military rulers anywhere, they don't accept ctiticism easily. So we have to get our point across in acceptable way.

"This may not be the way things are done in the West, but as long as we're able to communicate. I think we're doing the job in the best way it can be done."

Some Indonesians complain that their newspapers print to much government propaganda distributed by the state news agency, Antara. Others say editors are more concerned with showing a profit than in spending money on investigate journalism. Most of these critics concede, however, that within the tightening ring of press freedom in Southeast Asia, their papers keep them about as well-informed as is possible.