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Half a Century of Turmoil for Indonesia’s Media

The early 1950s came to be known as the period of so-called ‘personality journalism’. That is, a media dominated by a few well-known figures.

It was a time when the performance of the newspaper was very much determined by the associated figure. A newspaper or magazine that did not have a reputed public figure would be ‘nothing’, and would not gain good readership.

It was also a period of idealism within the press. With very limited facilities, equipment and money, publications were able to function and run on-the-spot exclusive stories by dedicated reporters, quality articles by great writers and provide a clear vision in their editorials.

“In the past, we had great writers like B.M. Diah, Rosihan Anwar, Mochtar Lubis and several others. They were powerful and strong purely through their writing ability, not due to their position, wealth or political connections,” says Harry Sitompoel, a veteran Indonesian journalist who used to work with ‘Merdeka’ (Freedom), which was founded by journalist-turned-resistance fighter Burhanuddin Muhammad Diah in 1945.

Such an idealistic press prevailed and developed in favourable condition. In the early 1950s Indonesia was, with all its faults, a functioning parliamentary democracy.

During the later years of the 1950s, a variety of factors saw President Sukarno turning into an authoritarian leader. Seeing ‘enemies’ everywhere around him, he turned paranoid about every criticism, including from the press, and felt he and his dream of revolution in Indonesia was under attack. Inevitably, writers and the press became potential enemies. Sukarno banned ‘Indonesia Raya’, ‘Merdeka’ and ‘Pedoman’ and put their editors in jail without trial in 1961.

But this was also the period when journalists were of tougher mettle. They continued to write and did not change their opinions under pressure. If domestic publications were not willing to run their articles, foreign publications were open with much higher compensation and appreciation. They often become attractive news sources for foreign media covering Indonesia. At home, they were the role models for young journalists. The ban was actually counterproductive for Sukarno.


With the help of his Western backers, Suharto emerged on the Indonesian political scene like a long-awaited hero. He was hailed by Muslim groups for crushing the communists; welcomed by nationalists for preventing national disintegration; and of course he was lauded by the West for toppling the left leaning Sukarno.

Pledging to straighten up implementation of the state ideology of ‘Pancasila’, he named his government the ‘New Order’, while labelling the Sukarno era as the ‘Old Order’. Most importantly, he restored the banned newspapers: ‘Indonesia Raya’, ‘Pedoman’ and ‘Abadi’.

Under the ‘guidance’ of his Western advisors, Suharto opened wide the door for foreign investment, which soon flowed in. Aids, loans, assistance came in and he strengthened his reign to a point where, to pre-empt any disruption to his development plan, Suharto soon turned into an iron-fisted ruler.

It was just a matter of time before he closed down the newly-restored newspapers and put their editors in jail again. It was obvious soon that the country was in the hands of a dictatorial military regime which solved problems by pointing guns, and not through dialogue and debate.

This was the era in the media of what was popularly called by Indonesians as ‘budaya telepon’, which literally means the culture of phone call. This referred to the way a story could be dropped or run on the basis of a high military official giving orders over the phone. A military official could even ask an editor or director of a publication to fire a reporter by just making a phone call. It was enough to make the media obey the ‘request’ because they knew the consequences of dissent were very harsh.

It was in this period a specifically Indonesian style of journalism called ‘journalisme tiarap’ emerged. ‘Tiarap’ means ducking to avoid shooting or any form of attack. It figuratively means avoiding sensitive issues that could spark ‘Cendana’s anger’, Cendana being the name of Suharto’s residence. Even though Suharto laid down a list of issues to be avoided by the media – namely issues concerning ethnicity, religion, race, and inter-religious community relations – in practice there were no clear standards and everything depended on the interest and mood of Soeharto and his men.

There were also an unwritten law in the Suharto period about three other things editors and reporters could not write about. First, never run stories on or quoting any members of Petisi 50 (Petition 50), a group of retired generals and senior citizens who once submitted a petition to Suharto, expressing concern over the plight of the nation and giving a set of recommendations.

Second, never run stories or articles questioning the Dwi Fungsi ABRI, which literally means the Indonesian military’s dual function. This alluded to the military’s involvement in not just military affairs but also civilian ones, a concept which allowed allocation of seats for unelected military officials in the Indonesian House of Representatives, governorships and other key posts for retired generals.

Third, never write or run stories on any negative thing about Suharto’s family members.

Despite following all these codes, journalists and members of the media were still likely to be punished for various ‘indiscretions’. “The actual standard was the mood of Suharto and his military men, which did not make any sense to anyone else,” said Yanto Soegiarto, former editor of the now defunct English daily ‘Indonesian Observer’.

As part of its war on the free press the Suharto regime closed down several publications, including the Sinar Harapan daily, Tempo news magazine, Editor news magazine and Detik tabloid. All this after already banning Indonesia Raya, Pedoman and Abadi.

Despite the various restrictions, the Suharto era saw a boom in the media business: exclusive and fancy magazines, newspapers, and especially TV stations. It was actually not that difficult to get a press license as long as one could convince the government of one’s loyalty and comply with the various unwritten rules. Those who got into the media business obviously were the ones with close connections to Cendana.

Until the early 1980s, Indonesia had only one national TV station, the state-owned TVRI. By the 1990s, it had four – three of them, RCTI, SCTV and TPI were then owned by Suharto’s children. By the time of his resignation in 1997, it had seven. Currently it has 11, not including regional stations.

On top of ‘budaya telepon’ the Suharto period was a time which saw the rise of ‘budaya amplop’ or ‘culture of the envelope’. At press conferences organised by government agencies or private companies, journalists would be handed a press kit with an envelope among the sheets of press releases. Inside the envelope was money.

The Information Ministry or President’s Palace did not provide such envelopes, but once invited to their press conferences, editors or reporters could not even dream of not attending because their absence would imply disloyalty and a lot of problems ahead.

The more controversial a company was, the bigger the sum of money inside the envelope would be. There were some ‘journalists’ who relied fully on this kind of ‘income’ for their living. If a ‘journalist’ could attend three press conferences a day, it would be enough to send them home with a smiling face.

It was not surprising, then, that businessmen were establishing press companies which did not offer any salary to their reporters. Even if they did, the rate was extremely low. ‘Journalists’ were not only expected to earn their own income but in some cases even feed the company by setting aside a sum of money for their bosses.


Suharto’s successor Bacharuddin Joesoef Habibie, propelled to power by Indonesia’s pro-democracy movement that toppled Suharto, may have been the most press-friendly Indonesian president in all its modern history. He abolished licences for starting publications and did away with censorship by the government.

Habibie’s policy however boomeranged on him politically. Both the old and newly born media jointly attacked him as ‘President by accident’ and ‘as Suharto’s protégé’.

In the Habibie period hundreds of new publications were born. Most could hardly survive for lack of revenues, a small readership base and, of course, low quality. Most of their journalists came from the ranks of the unemployed who took to journalism as a way of making money by either blackmailing corrupt government officials or doing a public relations job for private companies.

Abdurrahman Wahid who succeeded Habibie was hailed by the media community as a true proponent of freedom of the press. He dissolved the once powerful Information Ministry that had long been Suharto’s tool of controlling the press.

While Gus Dur, as Wahid was popularly called, was supposed to be pro-press freedom, he was also a religious leader of more than 30 million fanatic followers of the Nahdlatul Ulama or NU. Whenever the press criticised him, he would not react personally, but NU members would ransack the media offices portraying him negatively.

This happened to ‘Jawa Pos’, the largest daily in East Java. In one of its editions, ‘Jawa Pos’ ran a story alleging Gus Dur of having a hand in the misuse of the Bulog (National Logistics Agency) fund. This sparked the anger of Banser (the NU’s civilian security division) who stormed into the ‘Jawa Pos’ office, ran amok, and destroyed computers and other equipment. Gus Dur, however, did not condemn his supporters’ actions.

It soon became common for people to attack media offices should they feel upset with their stories. The ‘Tempo’ office was attacked by bodyguards of a businessman who, according to ‘Tempo’, was behind the burning of a traditional market in Jakarta in a foul attempt to get a contract for reconstructing the market.

Megawati’s rise to the presidency after Wahid’s fall was regarded as the victory of people’s power and ‘reformasi’. But Megawati herself proved to be a ‘woman of the palace’ who was not familiar with the people’s suffering, their needs or the value of a free press.

The foreign media often described her as nothing more than a housewife who was forced by circumstances to become an opposition leader. She rarely answered questions posed by reporters and uttered only a few sentences.

During her period in power, as part of a larger global media trend, Indonesia too saw the rise of ‘infotainment’ as the preferred content of most newspapers, radio and television stations. Businessmen who knew little about the media business took to publishing soft porn magazines or tabloids featuring fledging actress wearing little more than a seductive expression on their faces. They did roaring business.

The current Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s grip on the Indonesian media is quite well known. To give an example, weeks before taking his politically tough decision to increase domestic fuel prices, all TV stations were packed with ads promoting the need to lift oil subsidies ‘for the good of the country’.

Under Yudhoyono, the Indonesian media looks just fine on the surface. Only certain journalists know what exactly is the situation. Among them are the editors of ‘Kompas’ daily Sukardi Rinakit and Riswnada Imawan, a social-political analyst at the Yogyakarta-based Gadjah Mada University. ‘Kompas’ is the largest circulating daily in Indonesia today. These two people are not allowed to write articles in the media. There are no written notices about the ban. But they know they cannot write.

“Budaya telepon is back now,” said Yanto Soegiarto, who is also a producer in Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia [RCTI] TV station. “Someone in the presidential office delivered a message of President Yudhoyono to them about the ban.”

Regardless of the revival of old practices to control the press, the Indonesian media and its entire community of journalists have really changed, says Rosihan Anwar, a veteran Indonesian journalist. “In the past, journalists were more of thinkers, intellectuals and freedom fighters. One joined a newspaper or magazine because he or she wanted to express ideas and take part in a fight for independence and in shaping the future of the country. Now, one applies to become a journalist in order to work and get an income.”

Similar is the case with media companies. “In the past, newspaper, magazines were the tools of struggle, in ideas and aspirations. Now, media is a mere business. That is the fact of the present and no one can go back to the past,” says Anwar. (END/2006)


One comment on “Half a Century of Turmoil for Indonesia’s Media

  1. Sorry, aber das bezweifel ich ganz stark…Baer

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