Indonesian Media: Constructive or Destructive?

Indonesia’s free media has become a distinctive feature of the country since the arrival of democracy in 1999 and today is seen as a reference for several countries in the region. Indonesia compares positively for free speech to Thailand, currently ruled by a military junta and with draconian lèse-majesté laws; Malaysia, where the ruling party has tightly controlled critics for decades; and Singapore, where a large part of the press is an organ of the state.

Freedom does however have its limitations. A number of media titles, including influential television broadcasters, adopt often extreme bias in their reporting of and commentary on political events. Freedom of speech in the media can also mean freedom to encourage xenophobia and freedom to launch black campaigns.

While media freedom in Indonesia improved slightly in the latest ranking from Reporters Without Borders published in April, putting Indonesia at 130 out of 180 countries the country still came above most, but not all, of Southeast Asia. Cambodia ended up at 128 this year, with the Philippines – one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist – at 138 and Malaysia at 146. Singapore, which in the last year has charged political bloggers with offenses such as contempt of court and defamation of the prime minister, is ranked 154. Journalists in Laos and Vietnam are the least free in the region, being ranked 173 and 175 respectively. Last year Indonesia took 132nd place in the World Press Freedom Index.

In the aftermath of Suharto’s New Order, the media industry has become an important battleground of political contestation in the context of a highly competitive electoral democracy. Yet, many major media organizations in Indonesia are in the hands of a few politically-engaged media moguls and the explosion in the number of publications after the downfall of Suharto has arguably not produced the level of content diversity and journalistic quality seen in other thriving democracies.

Press, Broadcasting Law limitations

While the 1999 Press Law boosts press freedoms introduced by Suharto’s successor as president, BJ Habibie, it also does not hinder old players from maintaining their dominant position in the post-authoritarian era, precisely because the state no longer exercises stringent controls over the ownership of media. Meanwhile the 2002 Broadcasting Law introduced limitations to media ownership which were then crippled by a 2004 Constitutional Court ruling that returned power to grant licenses and regulate the industry to the government by subordinating the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI).

In the book Ethical Orientations of Journalists Around the Globe, authors Patrick Lee Plaisance, Elizabeth A. Skewes and Thomas Hanitzsch, the latter a German media researcher who spent five years in Indonesia teaching communications and journalism studies, see the “increasing centralization of ownership in a few companies” as arousing “public anxiety about future threats to content variety and the excessive political bias of media whose owners are affiliated with certain political parties.”

Television news stations MetroTV and TVOne are often singled out for special attention in this regard. MetroTV is owned by Surya Paloh, founder and chief of the National Democrat Party (Nasdem) while TVOne is owned by Aburizal Bakrie, currently chairman of a split faction of the Golkar Party. According to Australian media researcher Ross Tapsell, although their audience share is rarely above 7%, their “prominence as news providers is clear because they are both free-to-air, 24-hour-news, analog television channels that transmit around the entire archipelago.”

Up to this point, the Indonesian mediascape is perhaps not much different than Australia or the United Kingdom, where politically-wired Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation controls a large share of newspapers and some television channels. However, according to many observers, Indonesian media suffers from a bigger problem – a lack of well-trained journalists who see their work as a service to the public.

American media researcher Lawrence Pintak led a survey in 2011 of 600 journalists scattered around Indonesia which was published in the International Journal of Press/Politics. He described the findings as follows:

“Americans may be questioning the value of professional journalism, but Indonesian reporters and editors see their own lack of professionalism and poor journalistic ethics as the greatest challenges to their industry. Where opinion rules in the American media, 85% of Indonesian journalists said reporters must always be objective; where a noblesse oblige reigns in the US media, less than a third of Indonesian journalists thought their industry was doing a good job. And where corporate buyouts are consolidating ownership of mainstream media organizations into the hands of a few large corporations in the US, Indonesian journalists cited control by media oligarchs as one of their biggest problems.”

“In the US, questions are being raised about the value of a journalism education. In Indonesia, where there are few such schools, journalists crave professional training. And where many American journalists cashiered from their jobs are scraping by with ‘entrepreneurial’ ventures that often generate little income, Indonesian journalists cite poor salaries — 60% of them make less than $250 a month — as the primary reason for the so-called ‘envelope culture’, in which reporters accept money in return for stories.”

Generating conflict?
This state of media in Indonesia raises the question of whether it can adequately handle divisive issues and foster unity and mutual respect in a sprawling archipelagic nation of multiple religions, languages and ethnicities. While the education system and local leaders, including religious figures, have a great deal of influence in shaping the views of people around divisive issues concerning religion, abuses of power by public officials or moral dilemmas, the media is the only source capable of providing immediate context to new events and emerging trends.

A good example of this was the murder of prostitute Deudeuh Alfisahrin by one of her customers at a boarding house in Tebet district, South Jakarta in April 2015. Her story became a national sensation for several weeks as new details of her case emerged. When she was alleged to have contacted potential clients through her Twitter account, the story quickly changed from a case of violence against prostitutes to one about the emergence of online prostitution.

The treatment of the story sidelined any debate about how to best protect women like Alfisahrin in a country where prostitution is deeply shunned by most of society to how online prostitution should be eradicated. It prompted the Jakarta Police to form a special team tasked with cracking down on prostitution arranged through the internet and in the months following the event dozens of alleged prostitutes and clients were arrested in raids on hotels and boarding houses in the capital.

Muhamad Heychael, the director of television and online media watchdog Remotivi, told Concord Strategic that Alfisahrin’s case exposed major ethical flaws in Indonesian media. “We are talking about the prostitute, not about the law, not the murder case. We talk about the background of the prostitute: who is her mother, who is her father, even interviewing men who allegedly used her services,” he said.

The sensationalized debate surrounding the murder case, one of many to receive such media treatment, was also accompanied by reports listing the names of people implicated in the story and their addresses, including the alleged culprit, a breach of confidentiality common in many crime stories and which has the potential to stigmatize innocent parties and expose them to retaliation.

Heychael said the media frenzy around the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community earlier this year was no different. “People didn’t want to try to understand the complexity of the LGBT issue. They just want to know which celebrity is gay, lesbian, etc… The media in the end did not explain that being gay does hinder someone’s rights as an Indonesian citizen, their rights to go to university,” he said.

The LGBT issue began with comments from Research, Technology and Higher Education Minister M. Nasir asking the University of Indonesia to ban LGBT support groups from its campus. It was followed by a wave of rejection of the community by other senior officials, NGOs and religious groups, culminating with edicts against homosexuality, their categorization as mentally ill and their persecution by radical vigilantes in some areas.

“OK, maybe you think LGBT is not OK (to be gay) because of your religion, but the Constitution is not based on religion…. That kind of discussion is missing from the media outlets. What we see is sensationalism, not productive at all to understand the people,” Heychael remarked.

Religious bias

Another media story analyzed by Remotivi in recent months was the coverage of the Tolikara incident in Papua last year. One person was shot dead by police and several others were injured when a Christian mob reportedly attacked a group of Muslims about to perform Idul Fitri prayers and set fire to a mosque – although the true version of events is difficult to ascertain given the lack of media access to Papua.

This lack of information did not prevent one major news broadcaster to open its news bulletin directly blaming the Christian congregation for setting fire to the mosque. Heychael said that in the aftermath of the incident, “MetroTV news spread information about the mosque burned by Christians. No other context, (that version of the events) was spread to all the country,” he said.

Two Protestant churches were torched, possibly in retaliation to the Tolikara incident, in Purworejo regency, Central Java and Bantul regency, Yogyakarta, in the following week. While violent reactions by vigilantes against perceived attacks on Islam are common in Indonesia, the initial treatment of the story as an attack by Christians on Muslims may well have exacerbated the reaction.

Reasons for poor quality

Media are commonly used as political weapons, often to spread misreporting or extremely biased commentary designed to erode public support for political figures. The ease of creating news websites and then popularizing them via social media makes this extremely effective. Xenophobic arguments are another popular offering on such websites.

Issues with ethics by Indonesian journalists have been documented. A 2015 study by Anggi Fajar AyuIn at Drexel University in Philadelphia found that while 92% of more than 60 Indonesian journalists surveyed had knowledge of the Indonesian Journalism Code of Ethics, over a quarter did not consider it to be useful and over a third did not think it was appropriate to promote its use among their peers.

The survey involved mainly experienced journalists and it is likely that the results would have been more negative among less experienced reporters. The same study quoted a 2009 presentation by six Indonesian media researchers stating that 80% of journalists in the country “never read the Code of Ethics.”

There is no shortage of arguments to explain this. Umar Idris, head of Jakarta’s Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), told Tempo magazine in 2013 that Indonesian journalists are being paid less than other countries in Southeast Asia. He pointed to two unnamed media corporations that only spend 8% and 12.39% of their total revenue on paying their journalists. Erick Tanjung, a member of AJI’s Worker Union Division, said Malaysian media organizations spend on average 18.3% of their income on pay for journalists, 29.3% in Singapore and 37.12% in Australia.

From the perspective of media companies, attempts to enforce codes of ethics and sanction sensational news reporting are often met with accusations of hindering media freedom. In Ethical Orientations of Journalists Around the Globe, Indonesian journalists were said to be the most likely to support the notion that journalists should be allowed to develop their own codes of conduct, followed by their colleagues in Turkey.

Heychael also points out that Indonesian media and journalists are not interested in challenging the general beliefs of people, whether about corruption or the limits of what is morally acceptable, particularly television reporters. “Journalists in TV don’t think like journalists when it comes to sensitive issues, they think it’s more important to be ‘Indonesian’ than to be a journalist.”

He said the treatment of religious minorities in the media such as the Shia and Ahmadiyah sects is a clear example of this. “It is not entirely true that media owners are interested in keeping people dumb, the main concern is the poor quality of journalists,” he said, adding that while owners may not care whether certain content endangers a minority, they are generally more interested in the political influence of their media organization and its profitability.

Don’t worry about the context
Heychael also highlighted that a tendency to report messages from officials rather than to convey them in clearer ways or contextualize them also removes the ability of journalists to balance news stories. “(As an example,) when Jokowi (President Joko Widodo) calls a media conference, journalists go there to cover it. They don’t care whether what he says is true, they don’t care whether what he says contradicts other statements, they don’t care about that. What they do is they write it and they publish it,” he said. “Journalists don’t create their own agenda.”

He specifically pointed out online news media as bearing the bulk of responsibility for this type of journalism. News sites like or compete for immediacy and breaking stories, making them some of the most-read websites in Indonesia. To make this possible, reporters sometimes write their stories as an event such as a press conference unfolds, and publish it without the intervention of editors and sub-editors.

The result is highly inaccurate reports which in the best of cases misspell names and in worse scenarios misrepresent people, including victims of crime. “I think this is much more dangerous than (media) ownership itself. The problem is much bigger,” he said. Some media companies put new reporters on assignments without training, including those without a background in journalism. While Western news organizations are increasingly driven by ‘instant news’ publishing, their reporters are most often aware of the context of the material they are reporting and more concerned about getting the story right.

Another issue is the way journalists relate to their employers. While journalists in respectable print media like Kompas newspaper or Tempo magazine may see themselves as having a duty both to their employers and to their readership, Heychael says the situation among television reporters is much different. “Journalists don’t see themselves as working for the public, they see themselves seeing as working for Suryah Paloh, Bakrie, etc…”

Employment security is another factor, as journalists have in the past lost their jobs for reporting against the interests of organizations.

Heychael said the 2014 presidential election was a clear example of this. In the months leading up to the June election, MetroTV owner Paloh and his Nasdem Party endorsed Joko Widodo for president while Bakrie and Golkar did the same with losing candidate Prabowo Subianto. “When media owners back one or the other candidate, journalists strive to find news in line with their alignment. Not because of orders, but because it would impress their boss,” he said.

This resulted in Bakrie’s TVOne declaring Subianto the winner of the poll despite clear evidence that Widodo had won, misreporting that the broadcaster persisted with for a few days until the outcome of the poll became too obvious to deny.

Lack of training
The explosion of media titles that followed Habibie’s dramatic and unexpected move to free the press in 1999 was not accompanied by any increase in already minimal training programs. Indonesian journalists are often expected to learn from their peers, even though their peers may also never have received any formal training.

Only cub reporters at long-established media titles Kompas, Tempo and The Jakarta Post get anything in the way of training. New reporters elsewhere are usually ordered into the field on their first day, making them prone to poor journalism practices such as the ‘envelope’ culture. Some learn to use their ability to publish reports as a means of extorting sums of money from people in the news, or who are guilty of some moral weakness. These so-called journalists, popularly called “Wartawan Bodrek,” turn up at press conferences and demand payment for being there.

There are efforts to improve the quality of journalists. The Press Council in 2012 obliged journalists to undergo a regular certification process that will examine and classify journalists based on their skills and competence (junior, mid-level, senior). Only 5,742 journalists were listed on the council’s website (the first being Kompas’ founder, Jakob Oetama).

Some media outlets do apply reasonably high standards. Vivanews used to apply layers of proofing and editing before news could be published. The founders, former Tempo journalists, aimed to improve the quality of stories produced by online media but most have by now resigned from the company. CNN Indonesia also imposed similar methods under Nezar Patria – now managing the digital platform of The Jakarta Post.

Media literacy

While the medium may distort the message, knowing the medium helps de-codify that message. Heychael said that based on anecdotal experience, media literacy among high schools students is low. “From our experience we know that Indonesians don’t think, don’t know the logic of media. They think that if Surya Paloh uses Metro TV for political reasons it is OK because he owns it,” he said.

Most people he has spoken to don’t see mass media as having a big impact on their lives. “However, most Indonesians don’t know how to differentiate between journalism and hoax (stories). Many believe hoaxes are true,” he said.

While consumers may be able to contextualize media ownership and its influence in its content, their acceptance of this is discouraging. Heychael said that research conducted in 11 university campuses in Jakarta showed that around 58% of students did not know that television and radio broadcasting frequencies are public property.

“They don’t know they have a right to improve the media. When we talk about media regulation and the broadcasting law we assume the frequency is owned by the public. But if you ask Indonesians… (they don’t know),” he said. “A bigger problem in Indonesia is that we tend to read or consume news compatible with what we believe in. We have a ‘normative ideal’ about what the news should be,” he added.

“If you see Indonesian news besides MetroTV and TVOne, most news is about accidents, crime, sensational things… But even when accidents get reported, we don’t talk about how bad the roads are, how bad they are being taken care of, how bad the transportation is and so on… we talk about the damage of the accident,” he said.

Changes on the horizon?

Heychael sees the digitalization of television frequencies, which has been in process for several years, as an opportunity to re-balance media ownership as well as TV content and variety. He says an estimated 90% of Indonesians obtain their daily news mainly through television, which makes any reform in broadcasting media key to improve its quality. However, the digitalization of television frequencies, which the government aims to complete by 2018, appears to have made little progress in recent years.

This year, the government will grant or renew television licenses and will see the appointment of new KPI commissioners, as the nine incumbents inaugurated in 2013 end their terms. Heychael hopes the new commissioners will take public complaints more seriously. The KPI issued 408 sanctions to Indonesian television channels from 2013 up to last year but most concerned ‘inappropriate’ content broadcast during hours of programming suitable for children. Complaints against a lack of reporting ethics or political use of the networks were rarely followed up.

However, Heychael said he has limited expectations for what a new KPI can achieve, as the House of Representatives controls the appointment of new members, who usually serve the interests of political parties and their leadership – including media moguls.

In the longer term, he sees regulatory changes and improving media literacy as essential steps to lift the standards of broadcasting media and the public’s expectations.

As for legislation, he considers the 2002 Broadcasting Law, a regulatory effort to transfer control over the media from the state to the public, to be satisfactory. However, the Constitutional Court review of the law in 2004 gave the government, not the KPI, the power to enact regulation since which it has facilitated media monopolies and hindered efforts to improve media standards.

A source close to Communication and Information Minister Rudiantara told Concord Strategic that the minister does not intend to introduce major reforms in the broadcasting industry. The source said Rudiantara, who has spent most of his career working for major telecommunication businesses, does not see media and communications as owned by the public, but rather as a field for businesses to operate.

Independent digital media could, as it has in other countries, improve the standards of journalism in Indonesia by critically examining the performance of traditional media and expose issues which other media have refused to deal with. However, no online news site in Indonesia has yet carved out this niche or earned the reputation of being willing to counterbalance other media.

Poor quality, unethical and biased reporting is likely to remain prevalent in much of Indonesia’s media for years to come, consequently challenging the responsible treatment of minorities, crime cases and other sensitive stories.
With more regional elections scheduled for next February, including the critical election for the governorship of Jakarta, balanced reporting on the issues is likely to be swamped by biased reporting that aims to sensationalize issues, often at the risk of offending Indonesia’s tradition of not inflating problems related to race, ethnicity, religion or group affiliation.


A version of this article was first published by Concord Review on March 31, 2016. Free trial subscriptions are available.

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