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6 novembre 2006 1 06 /11 /novembre /2006 00:00

 In Freedom House’s charter on journalism freedom in the world, has shifted from the category of “free countries” to the category of “partly-free countries”, with a score of 58,  since the end of Suharto’s dictatorial regime. It may mean that Indonesia is laying the foundations that will lead her to meet the global standards of press freedom. Yet, the improvement of press freedom in Indonesia is not to be taken for granted and we can wonder whether there is still a major risk of press freedom decline. The situation of Indonesia is all the more complex since the media laws have been massively softened and the Department of Information has been abolished since 1998 but journalist harassment remains relatively commonplace and reporters tend to use self-censorship in a context of violence and regional, ethnic and religious tensions.

In order to show to what extent the situation of press freedom has improved since 1998, this essay will first deal with the tradition of the press in and the way it was repressed during Sukarno’s Guided Democracy and Suharto’s New Order. Secondly, it will show how the reforms undertaken after the collapse of Suharto’s regime, especially by president Habbie, brought about a new press freedom and allowed the Indonesians to access broader and more-diversified sources of information. However, it will eventually focus on the limits of the new press freedom, related both to the ambiguous positioning of the government and to the pressure of the civil society on the media. 


The history of media in is relatively long and did not start after the collapse of Suharto’s thirty-year long dictatorship. Since the colonial period, has had lively media, private community-focused radio stations and quality newspapers. During the 1920s, newspapers in Bahasa Indonesian flourished and played a major role in the spread of the nationalist ideology. But Sen (2002, p.72) underlines that in spite of this long journalistic tradition, “the notion of a non-partisan fourth estate never was persuasive in ”. Indeed, the press has always been a political tool, first during the struggle against colonialism and the Japanese occupation, then as a tool of Sukarno’s Revolution, and finally as a guardian of national security and the national ideology of Pancasila under Suharto’s rule. Until recently, the government television and radio networks had a monopoly on news broadcasting. The private television channels and radio stations –when they existed, which means after 1970 for radio stations and 1988 as far as television is concerned- were obliged to relay official news up to thirteen times a day (Idris & Gunaratne, 2000, p.279). Moreover, during the 20th century, most of the Indonesian newspapers either had a chaotic existence, because they were regularly banned for being critical toward the government, or could not afford to do independent reporting on sensitive or political issues (Idris & Gunaratne, 2000). Thus, despite a long tradition, the Indonesian media are not used to operating independently from the state in a democratic environment.

During Sukarno’s Guided Democracy and Suharto’s New Order, the press was strictly controlled by the state and the press laws were very limiting.  Under the Guided Democracy, criticizing the president was of course prohibited and opposition newspapers were banned, but  publishers also had to sign a 19-point agreement tying them to the government (Idris & Gunaratne, 2000).  This system of licenses has been a permanent feature of the Indonesia press system for decades and partly still exists nowadays. Besides, under Sukarno, all the newspapers had to be affiliated with a political party (Hidayat, 1999). After General Suharto seized power, a 1966 press law stipulated that no censorship or bans shall be applied to the national press. However, the communist newspapers were banned, as well as the Chinese-language newspapers.  Furthermore, the press was constantly reminded that it bore a crucial social responsibility when reporting on SARA (Idris & Gunaratne, 2000, p.272). The acronym SARA referred to group or clan, religion, ethnicity and inter-group affairs. Issues such as the relations between state power and Islam, or the wealth and businesses of the first family could virtually not be tackled either (Heryanto & Mandal, 2003, p.47).

Nepotism was the general rule. For instance, the president of the Commercial Radio Broadcasters ‘Association, which all radio stations had to join, was president Suharto’s own daughter. Many friends of Suharto and members of his family had leadership positions in commercial television channels or press conglomerates (Hidayat, 1999, p.189) . Media were considered as “partners of development” of the state and consequently had to relay its agricultural or family planning programs (Hidayat, 1999, p.179). Thus, during roughly forty years, from the late 1950s to the late 1990s, Indonesia experienced a non-free press, permanently threatened by a state which tried to instrumentalize it. Nevertheless, the 1998 events brought about dramatic transformations.

 Since the collapse of Suharto’s regime in 1998, it seems that freedom of the press is on the crest in . Many parameters have been changing very quickly, and some changes could even be perceived from the early 1990s, when the regime started crumbling. At that time, the media did not only reflect the changes taking place but also drove the dissent (Sen, 2002, p.70). According to Sen and Hill (2005) global technological changes contributed to the disintegration of the New Order, especially the Internet, which undermined two instruments of dictatorship: censorship and propaganda. The Internet provided educated Indonesians with access to unofficial sources of information, while subversive websites were protected by the anonymity of the participants. In a context of rapid economic growth, a new middle class started demanding a liberalization of the media and for the first time took to the streets to defend journalism freedom in 1994, when the government banned two leading newspapers, Tempo and Editor (Hidayat, 1999). Moreover, in the framework of a capitalistic horizontal and vertical concentration of the broadcast media, journalists of private channels were torn between the “market’s demand for independent critical reporting” and the sensitivity to the government’s approval, according to Hidayat (1999, p.195). The tension created by this paradoxical transition period decreased after 1998.


Since 1998, and even 1997, major measures have been undertaken in order to set up a framework in which journalists could freely practise their job. The 1997 Broadcasting Act put an end to the state monopoly on news broadcasting and lowered the obligation of relaying official news to three times a day. Another crucial change occurred in 1999, when foreigners were allowed to invest up to 49% of the shares in news media (Idris & Gunaratne, 2000), for economic reasons at least as much as for political reasons. Habbie, the new President, eliminated state control over the associations of journalists and reduced the requirements to obtain a publishing license from sixteen to three. (Idris & Gunaratne, 2000, p.271). According to an article published in Antara, in Jakarta , on January 11th, 1999, these new laws allowed the national press to experience a real “honeymoon”. Indeed, it was a flourishing time for Indonesian journalists, compared to the three decades of dictatorship they had experienced.


As a result, the Indonesian media became more diversified. For instance, President Habbie granted the huge number of 742 new publishing licenses from June 1998 onwards (Idris & Gunaratne, 2000 p.27) In 2000, they were 750 licensed private radio stations in Indonesia, which means that the industry grew by 30 per cent in barely two years (Kumar, 2006). These radio stations progressively started broadcasting live programs and talk shows, which was forbidden during the New Order, since the broadcasts had to be based on a written script (Sen, 2002, p. 78), so that the Department of Information could monitor the content. Television channels and radio stations started producing their own news, and thus diversifying the viewpoints on current events. Journalists started reporting on former taboo issues. Sen (2002) underlines that in 1998, television channels still got instructions not to report on riots and student unrest. However, later on, journalists became more self-confident when tackling such “forbidden” issues as corruption and government shortcomings, which were more often exposed to public scrutiny (Drackeley, 2005, p.168), along with regional or religious conflicts. Furthermore, the founding of the Indonesian-language edition of Cosmopolitan in 1997 (Sen, 2002) became the show-case of the new openness of the Indonesian press, whereas during the New Order the media were supposed to protect the national culture against the imperialist foreign ideology. Thus, an unseen wind of freedom has been blowing through the Indonesian archipelago since the late 1990s. However, building new habits and new codes of behaviour, as well as confidence between the state and the journalists, does not happen overnight.


Although it cannot be denied that the situation of journalism freedom has been improving in since 1998, one should not be to naively optimistic when assessing the level of freedom of Indonesian journalists. After half a century of quasi-dictatorship, the reforms undertaken by the new democratic government have not been total. Idris and Gunaratne (2000) emphasize that many young journalists who demanded a “total reform” were disappointed by the new regulation, since the government retained the power to grant and suspend the publication licenses. Indeed, according to Freedom House’s 2005 chart, is a “partly free country”, not yet a free country. It underlines that media freedom has regressed in 2004 and that the government now uses new means to control the press, notably libel laws. For they are tried in court “under the criminal code instead of the press law”, the journalist do not have a right of reply and denounce a criminalization of the press. In an article published in Tempo in November 2004, Winarta wrote that there should be no libel or defamation in a context of press freedom, as long as the reporting has been done in good faith and for the public interest. This article followed the condemnation of Tempo’s editor to a one-year jail term and a fine of one million US dollars, because of an article implicating an Indonesian tycoon in the fire of a textile market. Thus,  economic and political interests still manage to bear upon the media and influence the content of the stories.


Furthermore, Indonesian journalists find it difficult to build a code of ethics in a context of young fragile democracy and separatist tensions. Self-censorship is still prevalent among them, since they would never mention the religious or ethnic identity of a suspect under the New Order and are now afraid of stirring up trouble (Lynch & McGoldrick, 2001). At the same time, foreign journalists have been banned from Aceh and the martial law harshly restricts the reporting in the area (Freedom House, 2005). On the other hand, some immoral editors try to make money by increasing discord between antagonist groups. Sen (2002, p.85) explains how a very successful media company publishes two dailies in Maluku, one for each religious side of the war-torn region. Moreover, according to Kumar (2006, p.123), the journalists’low wages tend to encourage the widespread practice of corruption. Thus, the development of a culture of responsible peace journalism seems to be necessary in . In Poso, an area torn between Muslims and Christians, the British journalists Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick (2001) tried to train the local journalists into conciliating a code of ethics, accurate reporting of the events, and peace building by relaying positive initiatives, instead of using incendiary headlines like “Reconciliation is finished”. In a violent and corrupt environment, journalists have to prove their abilitiy to use the freedom of the press wisely.

In taking on this challenge, the Indonesian journalists have been facing another hardship in the past few years, related to civil society, not to the state. Indonesian society has become more and more violent, making journalist harrassment relatively common. Journalists have to face threats and sometimes attacks coming from radical Islamic groups, rebels or political activists, according to Freedom House (2005). In 1991, the Muslim leader Muhammad Shiddiq al-Jawi asserted that freedom of speech and freedom of opinion conflicted with  Islamic law and this viewpoint seems to be shared by a growing number of extremists. The best symbol of this trend is obviously the current Playboy scandal. In 2006, Playboy tried to launch a prudish Indonesian edition of its magazine, without nudity at all. In April, an angry mob lead by the Islamic Defenders Front attacked the editorial office, forcing the journalists  to flee from Jakarta to Bali and stop the publication (Perlez, 2006). This event happened in the context of a harsh national debate on an anti-pornograhy law, backed by the radical Muslims, that aims at restricting nudity and incitation to ‘immoral behaviour’in the press and the arts. In April 2006, another newspaper, the Sinar Indonesia Baru, was attacked by extremist Muslims after reporting on the spread on gambling dens in the city of Medan . This religious intolerance toward the press is a relatively new and alarming phenomenon  in , which had a tradition of syncretic and  tolerant Islam in the past.


Thus, the Indonesian media experienced the most dramatic turning point of their chaotic history in 1998, with the end of Suharto’s dictatorship. For roughly a decade,  Indonesian journalists have been able to produce and broadcast their own news, write critically on the government’s activities and form their own associations. This progress of press freedom is noteworthy. If one looks back, the Indonesian population nowadays enjoys the most diversified press in its history, specially thanks to the Internet and satellite television. The journalists are learning what being independent both from the political parties and Department of Information means and how this freedom can be used with care and democratic responsibility. Nevertheless, the Indonesian journalists still have to fight their way toward a total journalism freedom and free themselves from the burden of corruption and censorship on military issues. This will be a overwhelmingly difficult task if Indonesian society keeps getting more and more intolerant and torn by separatist feelings.





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