Government Cracks Down on Media

Source: Australian Financial Review

Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor

The Indonesian Parliament is set to clamp down on the explosion of new television and radio stations since the downfall of former president Soeharto with draconian new legislation.

This would cripple the efforts being made by foreign media organisations – including Radio Australia and the new ABC Asia-Pacific TV service – to build major audiences in Australia’s biggest neighbour.

The legislation signals a sudden shift by the country’s political elite back towards the media control that has long prevailed in Malaysia and Singapore.

It also strikes a blow at one of the major successes of the post-Soeharto reform process – the growth of free-wheeling new media outlets that have campaigned aggressively for improved national governance.

A lecturer with an Indonesian Press Institute, Abdullah Almadi, said: “The bill turns the clock back nearly 40 years to 1964, when president Soekarno, during the height of Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia, banned the public from listening to foreign broadcasts.”

Parliament’s move has caught the usually hyperactive, second-guessing Indonesian media by surprise.

The bill is being blamed on MPs building populist bandwagons for campaigning at the next election, due by mid-2004 – when they will claim credit for replacing allegedly un-Islamic, “foreign” material with home-grown shows.

It is also payback time for Parliament, which has been ferociously criticised by the media for incompetence. Its Speaker, Akbar Tandjung, has been jailed for corruption this week after extensive revelations in the media, which have a long list of further political targets in their sights.

The new broadcasting bill proposes banning the relay of overseas-sourced news, music and sports programs. The bill does not affect direct broadcasts and telecasts from satellite dishes, which are only viewed by a tiny minority of the population.

But replays of the programming from the satellites by Indonesian media at a later date would be illegal. The bill does not refer to print media.

It limits the bans on music and sport to “music programs whose performances are improper, and sports programs that display sadism”. The targets here appear to include MTV.

The bill requires the deployment of a “government official inspector” in each broadcasting company, sets a code of conduct for the electronic media, and switches the licensing of media organisations from an independent regulator to the government.

It stipulates: “The national press is obliged to report news and opinions respecting religious norms and the public’s sense of moral values.”

The Indonesian Society of Press and Broadcasting, attacking the bill, said that at least a third of its 63 articles carried the threat of fines or imprisonment.

A consortium that includes Sydney businessman John Singleton and STW Communications has a controlling stake in SCTV, the second-biggest TV network in Indonesia, which was recently partially listed on the Jakarta Stock Exchange.

Parliament is due to pass the legislation at a session that begins on September 29.

The number of commercial radio stations in Indonesia has soared by 50 per cent to 1,100 since Mr Soeharto fell in 1997, and commercial national TV stations have doubled to 10, while there are already 15 regional TV stations, which have burgeoned since massive decentralisation began at the start of 2001.

They will be hit severely by the new law, since most have only very limited capacity to cover international news, in particular, and had been relying on relays from global providers. These include, in order of size, Voice of America, the BBC and the ABC.