By Duncan Graham
Indonesians who remember the bleak times when autocrat Soeharto imprisoned the nation’s press are pinch-me amazed at the media freedoms they now enjoy.
Those too young to know must rely on research organisations, like the US-government funded Freedom House. It reports that Indonesia’s ‘media environment continues to rank among the most vibrant and open in the region.’
Delete the qualifier ‘rank among’. In Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia the government-controlled, and often owned, media is anaesthetically bland.
In communist countries like Vietnam and Laos the media is back-to-back pronouncements on what fine things the government is doing to benefit the people – without the opinions of those people being heard.
Criticism and dissent is contrived and directed, like the so-called protests (above) in Hanoi and elsewhere against Chinese gas-drilling in a disputed area of the South China Sea. (Clue: Be suspicious of demonstrators carrying professionally-made banners in perfect English.)
In Thailand the press was relatively open (though not to criticise the Royal Family) till the May coup put the military in charge of the media.
None of these nasties operate in Indonesia. There have been defamation threats and some have made court with mixed results; ten journalists have been killed since 1992, and anti-pornography laws are shutting out videos on serious issues posted on sites like Vimeo. But overall it’s better to be a news consumer in the archipelago than anywhere else in the region.
This is democracy, but it’s being corrupted by self interest as media heavyweights use their enormous power and money to influence electors in the 9 July direct people’s poll to install a president for the next five years.
Bias is nothing new, as Rupert Murdoch has shown in Australia with News Limited’s blatant opposition to the Julia Gillard’s government and backing for Tony Abbott. Robust stuff, but amateur hour when compared to the misrepresentations, fabrications and distortion of ‘news’ now underway in the Republic.
In Australia voters are generally educated and question news sources. They also have widespread access to multiple media outlets where other views get aired.
This is not a good time for professional journalism in Indonesia as media owners blatantly use their toys for self promotion. A recent gross example had a picture of the politically ambitious Minister for State Owned Enterprises Dahlan Iskan on page one of the Jawa Pos plus an op-ed linking him to Singapore’s former leader Lee Kuan Yew.
Dahlan owns the paper, which has the second largest circulation in the country. (Kompas is first). The Jawa Pos group has more than 100 dailies across the nation.
Surya Paloh owns Metro TV and the Media Indonesia daily. He also chairs NasDem, the minority party now supporting the PDI-P’s Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’) (below) in his bid for the presidency.
Metro is a 24-hour news channel and it’s dominated by the former Jakarta Governor’s frequently flat speeches. These are then given yeast by ‘political observers’ who seldom disclose their leanings or patrons.
It’s the same at MNCTV, RCTI and Global TV, free-to-air channels owned by Hary Tanoesoedibjo. He’s Indonesia’s James Packer, a man with such a heavy wallet he makes Clive Palmer look like a slim beneficiary.
Hary is backing Jokowi’s rival, the disgraced former Kopassus (Special Forces) general Prabowo Subianto who quit the army after being charged with exceeding his authority during the 1998 crisis that led to Soeharto’s downfall.
Then there’s the Viva Group which runs two channels, TVOne and ANTV. These are owned by the Bakrie Group whose paterfamilias Aburizal Bakrie (‘Ical’) leads Golkar, the nation’s most powerful and best organised party built by Soeharto as his political fortress.
Bakrie strove mightily to top the parapets but that ambition was thwarted by lack of popular support; he too has turned to back Prabowo, buttressing defences against Jokowi in the DPR (Legislative Assembly).
None of this partiality would matter much in a well-informed electorate with easy access to choice. But Indonesians rely on television for information, which Soeharto cleverly ensured with the Palapa One satellite launch in 1975.
At that time when many Australians in remote country towns had no TV access (the government had chosen terrestrial transmission), Indonesian peasants in volcano villages and coral islets were cradled by TVRI, the government channel.
That’s where they learned how the world worked, as determined by Pak Harto in Jakarta. Among his policies was SARA, a ban on public discussion of ethnic, religious or race issues. Alternative ideas or views were also taboo.
The tradition remains. Indonesia is a country where people prefer to watch, not read. Flickering images trump ideas. Kompas, the most credible and professional newspaper, sells just half a million copies daily to a population of 240 million. (The Herald Sun sells that number in Victoria alone.)
The Internet is unavailable or unreliable beyond the urban sprawl. In this media wasteland television dominates all vistas, every plain.
Research conducted by political scientist Djayadi Hanan and his colleagues at the University of Paramadina shows 80 per cent of Indonesians rely on TV for their news. Paradoxically this doesn’t mean news stations like Metro are popular, garnering only three per cent of the audience, primarily A-class urban viewers.
Bakrie’s two channels do better, but Hary Tanoesoedibjo excels because his stations telecast quizzes, slapstick comedies and sinetron. These are the plot-thin, absurdly popular soap operas that keep millions on edge. Will the wife discover the Bapak’s mistress? The loudmouth maid already knows and she has a toxic tongue.
She’s not alone. The political poison is already at spring tide. In a tropical version of the Barack Obama birthing debate, Jokowi has published his marriage certificate to prove he’s not a half-Chinese Christian but a Javanese-born Muslim and therefore fit to lead a multi-ethnic and supposedly secular nation with pluralist values.
Surprisingly he hasn’t faced demands to unzip and show he’s been circumcised. Well, not yet.
On the other side it’s rumoured that Prabowo was emasculated in a shooting accident. This is why his wife, Siti Hediyati Hariyadi, fourth child of Soeharto, quietly filed for divorce after her father quit office, and why the old soldier never remarried.
What’s true and what’s vile scuttlebutt? The absence of independent fact-checking mainstream media staffed by fearless journalists is doing a disservice to the electors of Indonesia who sorely need an ABC.
A major Ford Foundation funded report compiled by international researchers led by Yanuar Nugroho of Manchester University, titled Mapping the Landscape of the Media Industry in Contemporary Indonesia, concluded:
‘There is an increasingly common perception that these media owners’ interests have endangered citizens’ rights to media, since they are using their media as a political campaign tool to influence public opinion.
'Our research finds that media owners turn the media into a simple commodity, withthe audience being treated as mere consumers rather than rightful citizens.’