Friday, June 01, 2001

Indonesian Media at the Crossroads

By Andreas Harsono/Jakarta

The Irrawaddy June 01, 2001

Three years after the fall of Suharto, the Indonesian press is facing new challenges in the wake of sudden media liberalization and rapid market expansion.


Andy F. Noya’s schedule has changed these days. He still goes regularly to his office very early in the morning, has editorial meetings and discusses budgets, but now most days he stays and works until after midnight.

His wife has stopped waiting for him to come home for dinner. He has a simple reason for this extra work. Noya helped set up Indonesia’s first 24-hour news-only Metro TV station in December and now has to work non-stop to keep it running well.

All across Indonesia, far from the glittering capital of Jakarta, in the more self-governing provincial cities in this vast archipelago, many journalists, producers, photographers, radio hosts and cameramen are sharing a similar experience. They work harder, if necessary from dawn to dusk, and keep joining as well as setting up new news organizations.

These massive changes have taken place rapidly since the fall of Indonesian dictator Suharto in May 1998, 32 years after he seized power. Suharto’s successors rushed to lift Dutch-inherited media laws that had had a stranglehold on the media for more than two centuries.

One law required newspapers to apply for government licenses. Another regulation prevented private radio and television stations from producing news reports. A ministerial decree also required reporters to join the single and compulsory state-sanctioned journalists’ association.

Many journalists played hide-and-seek with the Suharto regime to publish underground newspapers or to organize alternative unions. Suddenly all of these laws have gone, and they are free to do whatever they want.

Noya found himself establishing Metro TV with an investment of around US $50 million. Three other new stations are going to join the market this year, making altogether 10 stations in this country of 200 million.

The number of newspapers has also increased dramatically from around 200 during the three-decade rule of Suharto to more than 1,000 newspapers just one year after his dramatic exit.

Now it is difficult to even count the number of new newspapers. The democratically elected President Abdurrahman Wahid closed down the notorious Ministry of Information just a week after he was elected president in October 1999. "What’s its use? It did nothing but monitor and censor the media," said Wahid when responding to protests of around 40,000 ministry employees.

More than 800 radio stations have also been set up, racing to produce their talk shows and news reports. Dotcom startups have also joined the competition, creating many Internet portals whose contents range from news reports to cultural shows, from hobbies to pornography.

However, setbacks have also taken place. Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, winner of the Magsaysay Award for media and literature and the chairman of Indonesia’s Press Council, has repeatedly warned the media that their credibility is suffering as more and more inaccurate news reports appear throughout the country.

The problem is simple—the Indonesian media cannot afford to keep up the boom. Several inexperienced people have jumped into the media market. Andy F. Noya’s credibility was also questioned, when he conducted a so-called interview with former Indonesian army chief Gen Wiranto. It turned out that the interview was paid for by Wiranto to help soften his image. Wiranto allegedly masterminded the burning and killing in East Timor after a UN-sponsored referendum in 1999.

Mobs have often taken the law into their own hands, attacking journalists and news organizations over what they believe to biased reports. Some journalists have been found killed for allegedly conducting activities not related to journalism, such as blackmailing politicians or businessmen or becoming middlemen in shady activities.

In June 2001, Wahid himself accused the media of conducting a "character assassination" campaign against him. Wahid was not specific, but apparently this was a reference to some media speculations on a cabinet reshuffle as well as to an allegation that Wahid had had an affair with a young woman.

Indeed, the affair did cause a hot debate among journalists—perhaps one of the most important debates among journalists in Indonesia. The affair began in 1995 when a common friend introduced the then 33-year-old Aryanti Sitepu to Wahid, who was an influential cleric. They fell in love and began meeting either in Jakarta or on the tourist island of Bali. Sitepu kept the relationship a secret, although she managed to make pictures of their frequent meetings.

According to Sitepu, Wahid had promised to marry her, prompting Sitepu to ask for a divorce from her husband. Wahid allegedly had some elder Muslim clerics seeking a second wife since his first wife was crippled in a traffic accident.

But the affair quieted down after Wahid suffered a stroke. The nearly blind cleric, however, managed to overcome the worst of his agony and was elected president in 1999. Sitepu and her ex-husband, Muh Yannur, however, could not take it and wanted to expose the affair. Yannur began to circulate Sitepu’s letters, along with a private photo, and began to talk to opposition leaders.

Gatra weekly magazine broke the news on September 2, 2000. The report gave standard coverage, covering both sides, printing interviews with Sitepu but also a denial from the Wahid family. "We would like to implement the principle of amar ma’ruf nahi mungkar, especially as he is a public figure," said Gatra chief editor Widi Yarmanto, referring to a Koranic verse which basically encourages Muslims to uphold justice and to fight injustice. Other newspapers immediately jumped on the bandwagon, prompting Sitepu to go into hiding, though she still managed to conduct interviews with several radio stations.

Newspapers such as Kompas, Indonesia’s largest serious daily, or the Surabaya Post, an evening newspaper in Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya, declined to print even her name. "We want to appear a decent newspaper that can be trusted," said editor Zaenal Arifin Emka of the Surabaya Post.

These editors argued it was a private matter. Moreover it took place four years prior to the beginning of the Wahid administration, while Wahid himself is not known to be a cleric who likes to preach about married life. Wahid is better known as a champion of religious tolerance and human rights. He is also known as the leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim group in Indonesia.

When asked by reporters about the affair, Wahid declined to comment, "Why should you bother to report it? Who is that woman?" he asked.

Other newspapers did not report the allegation until the police summoned Sitepu on the charge of slander. At this point, editors argued that the private affair had entered the public sphere.

"The person involved here used his own money, not public money. If he had used public money, the case would be different, the story would have to be reported and the case would have to be questioned on the grounds that the public interest was corrupted," said Atmakusumah Astraatmadja.

Meanwhile, democratization in Indonesia has also opened up the media market to foreign players. International newspapers such as the International Herald Tribune and the Asian Wall Street Journal began printing in Jakarta. They are still printed in English, unlike women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan, Female, Seventeen or Her World. These magazines set up their own editorial offices in Indonesia, translated most of their stories into Indonesia-styled Malay language, ranging from gossip columns to articles on how to improve your sex life, and now publish their own Indonesian edition.

What about the economic crisis? What about political instability in Indonesia? Isn’t it bad? Doesn’t the rupiah keep on fluctuating? Also, President Wahid is widely considered a controversial leader, making erratic decisions and allegedly being involved in two financial scandals.

Despite these problems, expatriate journalists see Indonesia as a land of opportunity. The Indonesian market is simply too large to be ignored. More than 250 million people in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and parts of Thailand and Cambodia speak the Malay language. Nonetheless, Indonesian-language media companies usually end up burning a lot of money before they can establish any sort of brand-name recognition. Many local newspapers have been forced to shut down shop a year or two after entering the market.

In Jakarta there is currently a fierce newspaper war between Kompas, whose daily circulation is around 600,000, and a newcomer, Koran Tempo, which is published by Indonesia’s leading magazine Tempo.

Tempo is the name of a weekly magazine founded by Goenawan Mohamad, who is also known as a poet, in 1971 when Goenawan and his friends were still very young. It became a major magazine in the 1980s and famous worldwide when President Suharto banned it in 1994. Goenawan, however, refused to be scared and challenged the ruling. He won at a local and a high court. But the Supreme Court ruled in favor of its boss: Suharto.

Tempo was republished five months after the fall of Suharto. But the 60-year-old Goenawan soon retired, saying: "I want to write my opera." His successor, Bambang Harymurti, decided that the magazine was too small to allow for growth of the company. Harymurti suggested that they publish a daily newspaper, which hit the streets in April 2001.

It is perhaps still too early to predict what light the Indonesian media will see at the end of the tunnel. Some say Indonesia will become the Yugoslavia of Asia, torn by ethnic conflicts and separatism. Others believe that the country’s problems are still manageable, and that it will survive in one piece—though perhaps a little bit smaller. Meanwhile, the Indonesian media will continue to play a critical role in seeking answers to many questions. ***


Andreas Harsono is the editor of Pantau magazine.