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JAKARTA, Aug 15 1996 (IPS) - It is a chicken or egg situation: Will Indonesia have to wait for a change in the political system for a freer media, or will the media be itself the catalyst for change?
The question has become even more relevant in the aftermath of the rise in recent months of a vocal political opposition led by Megawati Sukarnoputri which has been trying to capitalise on leadership uncertainties and chronic income disparities that have persisted despite Indonesia’s rapid economic growth.
Recent street protests turned violent, and on Jul. 27 at least three people were killed in the riots that ensued after police raided the Jakarta headquarters of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) that was occupied by Megawati supporters.
Indonesia’s state-controlled media has largely been giving the official version of events, with the government’s ‘TVRI’ portraying the attacks on businesses on Jakarta’s main boulevard after the raid as political hooliganism.
Private television has been freer to show footage of the unrest in news feature programmes, but this may be because some of the five biggest private stations — ‘RCTI’, ‘TPI’ and ‘SCTV’, belong to companies part-owned by President Suharto’s relatives.
Indonesians with access to satellite dishes have followed coverage of events in their own country through international news channels like ‘BBC World’, ‘CNN’ and Australia’s ‘ABC’.
In recent days, local stations have been re-broadcasting TVRI’s evening news blaming the violence on ‘communists’ as a way to justify its crackdown on all opposition. Singled out has been Budiman Sujatmiko of the small Democratic Peoples’ Party for being behind a plot to topple the government.
Budiman, who was in hiding, was arrested earlier this week, but not before his tearful parents were put on state television over the weekend and shown asking him to give himself up.
Most political experts do not think the PDI has the organisational base, and Megawati may not have the leadership qualities to galvanise a nation-wide opposition movement. But uncertainties persist about who will succeed Indonesia’s 75-year- old president Suharto and there is also a widespread perception of corruption that appears to be giving the unrest its momentum.
Suharto came to power in 1967 after a 1965 abortive coup, blamed on the since banned Communist Party of Indonesia, led to the downfall of late President Sukarno — Indonesia’s charismatic post-independence leader, and Megawati’s father. The military- backed take-over came after anti-Chinese and anti-communist pogroms in which an estimated 500,000 people were killed.
The government is using the spectre of a return to violence and massacres to justify its present crackdowns on opposition figures and labour leaders and to put the lid on what it considers indiscriminate media coverage.
Indonesia’s outspoken television journalists, like Wimar Witoelar, have no doubt that media has to take a leading role in bringing political change. He made the point last month at a Jakarta seminar on broadcast media sponsored by AJI with the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
“People who hope for politics to change the course of communications have a long wait in store. The political mechanism is totally within the control of the power elite and limitations to free communications is an effort by the power elite to maintain the status quo,” he said then, his observation made just as the PDI unrest was heating up.
Wimar has reason to be bitter. Last September, his immensely popular weekly talk show ‘Perspektif’ was taken off without warning by the independent station, ‘SCTV’.
To those familiar with Indonesia’s media scene, the banning of Perspektif came as no surprise. Wimar had been rocking the boat by interviewing people not exactly in the good books of the government and Perspektif prided itself in being “a forum where people get away from slogans and standard euphemisms”.
It covered issues like the split within a branch of the PDI that preceded the July unrest with greater insight than any of the other broadcast channels, and since the ban Perspektif has transformed itself into a radio and print syndication service.
Ironically, even media groups in which Suharto’s family have interests have not been spared the axe. ‘Trijaya Radio’ which is owned by Suharto’s son Bambang Trihatmodjo’s the Bimantara Citra group was stopped last year from broadcasting its live talk show, ‘Jakarta Round Up’.
The censorship is not direct, but media managers are warned not to exceed certain unspoken thresholds. Said one: “It is mostly self-censorship. We know what the limits are, and we are often reminded to be careful.”
The hardening of the government’s attitude towards the media is a trend that followed the dramatic closure of three popular and money-spinning publications in June 1994: ‘Tempo’, ‘DeTik’ and ‘Editor’.
Reporters suddenly out of a job set up the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI). Four of its members, including AJI chairman Ahmad Taufik, are now in jail.
The government’s liberalisation of the broadcast media has ensured that networks owned by business interests will not jeopardise their licences by being too bold with their news programmes.
Bimantara Citra, for instance, is negotiating with CNN, HBO and ESPN to broadcast to what many regard as Asia’s most important audience after China and the Indian sub-continent: Indonesia’s 190 million people. Ownership of satellite dishes in Indonesia is estimated at 1.2 million: one of the highest per capita in Asia.
In its report ‘Muted Voices: Censorship and the Broadcast Media in Indonesia’ published in June, the international media watchdog ‘Article 19’ says that liberalisation of media ownership has not encouraged pluralism, but placed private broadcasting under the direct control of the ruling elite.
It added: “In Indonesia today there is no sense in which state- run radio and television stations can be seen as true public service broadcasters, while those commercial stations which take some, albeit limited, efforts to air views other than those furnished by the government run the risk of incurring undefined sanctions.”
Most Indonesian intellectuals today recognise the need for change, but are averse to the kind of instability and violence that rocked the country three decades ago. This is where the media’s role in promoting social values and political reform may be key.
Wimar sums it up: “Public and political processes will interact in unpredictable ways, but journalism must be a beacon for seekers of reform.”
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