For decades, indeed for as long as Indonesia has been a nation, the powerful Information Ministry has served as the mouthpiece of government. It was the chief custodian of "truth"--or at least, the official version of events. And for foreign reporters trying to come here, it was the most visible gatekeeper, dispensing hard-to-get journalist visas for foreign correspondents.

The ministry's vast powers lay primarily in its authority to license Indonesian publications. Newspapers could be shut down for not following the official line. Journalists, foreign and local, quaked when summoned to the Information Ministry to "discuss" an offending article or broadcast. And under former president Suharto, the job of information minister was considered one of the most important in the government, usually going to a general, or a top official of the ruling Golkar party.

The ministry was feared, hated, and became one of the most visible symbols of autocracy and control. Then a funny thing happened: Indonesia became a democracy, and the Information Ministry became a relic of the authoritarian past.

When Abdurrahman Wahid was elected president in late October, formally ushering in Indonesia's democratic era, one of his first acts was to abolish the ministry. Immediately, 50,000 employees had cause to worry about their livelihood; in an odd twist, they took to the streets to protest in front of the presidential palace.

In an editorial titled "End of An Era," the English-language Jakarta Post opined that from its beginnings as an agency designed simply to disseminate government policy throughout this vast archipelago, the Information Ministry "degenerated, over the course of its existence, into a tool of repression."

The ministry will be replaced by a much smaller, streamlined Information and Communications Board, but its structure is still being worked out and will not be announced until mid-January. Most of the ministry's 50,000 bureaucrats, in Jakarta and around the country will fan out to other government departments. Those close to retirement age will be shown the door gently.

Enter the hallways now of the massive Information Ministry tower, not far from the presidential palace and the national monument, and the mood is one of glum inactivity, mixed with boredom. Idle workers lounge on plastic chairs in the hallways--if they bother to show up for work at all. On the sixth floor, in the press division, there are mostly empty desks and a few offices that are darkened by lunchtime.

Sri Redjeki, director of journalistic affairs, describes her days as dull. She's a 30-year veteran of the Information Ministry, and now is uncertain where, or if, she will be placed in another job.

"I'm just waiting here," she said. "We're very upset . . . surprised and upset."

"We are still confused about why the president did it," she added. "We never imagined the department would be dissolved just like that."

She said Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, appears to be shaping his government on the American model, where every government agency has its own press spokesman, with no need for an overall, government-wide communication czar.

"Maybe the president sees it like America," she said. "But Indonesia is different from America. America is a developed country. Indonesia is underdeveloped. So we need an Information Ministry."

One of the ministry's most important, but least understood, jobs was to disseminate and explain new government rules and regulations to the millions of Indonesians in outlying areas with no access to information. "They can't read, they are illiterate, they have no radio, they have no television," she said.

Isa Anshary, who used to deal with visas and press credentials, is keeping busy now with meetings to discuss the setup of the new information board. And after that, he said, at age 46 and after 20 years vetting foreign journalists, he is ready to leave the civil service and try his hand in the private sector--perhaps in media relations.

While few journalists and free-press advocates lament the loss of the Information Ministry, many are now concerned that its sudden abolition leaves unanswered questions about media protections in the future.

Indonesia has a new, liberal press law, passed by parliament at the end of September, that clearly spells out press freedom. But without an Information Ministry, it is unclear who will implement the law now. Media advocates pointed out that the ministry--under the last information chief, retired Lt. Gen. Yunus Yosfiah--had become a promoter of press freedom instead of its nemesis, as in the past.

"The concern I have, and a lot of people have, is [that] without a ministry, who's in charge?" said A. Lin Neumann of the Committee to Protect Journalists, who is now in Bangkok as an adviser to the newly formed Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

"Of course you shouldn't have an Information Ministry," he said, "but you also have a country that doesn't have a First Amendment."

One thing that has not changed with the ministry's demise: the notorious "black list" in computers at Indonesian airports with the names of foreign journalists who are not allowed to enter the country.

CAPTION: In abolishing ministry, Abdurrahman Wahid has been criticized for taking an American approach.