Joko Widodo, shortly before he won the Indonesian presidential election in July. Earlier in the campaign, one of his rivals was media tycoon Aburizal Bakrie

Joko Widodo, shortly before he won the Indonesian presidential election in July. Earlier in the campaign, one of his rivals was media tycoon Aburizal Bakrie

A couple months before Indonesia’s presidential election last July, all the members of the VIVAnews editorial board received a strongly-worded e-mail. The sender was the popular news site’s boss, Anindra Ardiansyah Bakrie, known as “Ardie,” the son of Indonesian media and coal tycoon Aburizal Bakrie.

In the e-mail, Ardie complained about a VIVAnews main headline, posted to the site just a few hours previously. It was a straight news item about presidential frontrunner Joko Widodo, the candidate for Indonesia’s Democratic Party of Struggle, who went on to win the election and was inaugurated in October. Jokowi, as he’s more popularly known, made a campaign stop, said a few words, and moved on. Nothing special. What made the story unacceptable to Ardie was that his father, Aburizal Bakrie, who owns VIVAnews, TVOne, ANTV, and several other news outlets, is also chairman of the Golkar Party and was then one of Jokowi’s rivals in the election.

Ardie, in the e-mail, accused whoever uploaded the news item of being a “traitor” disloyal to his family and to his father’s company. He even invited anyone who disagreed with him to resign immediately. “I’ll be waiting for your resignation letter tomorrow at dawn, before the rooster crows, at the latest,” the graduate of Georgetown University wrote. “I’m not afraid of doing anything when I have to defend my father’s interest.” (In response to news about the e-mail, Ardie said he did not send it, though he does agree with its content.)

Ardie’s intervention is commonplace in Indonesia, where corporate media ownership intertwines with politics in ways that make for a difficult and often hostile environment for independent journalism. Mainstream news outlets provide less and less space for investigative journalism, and when they do take on political topics they play it safe, avoiding stories that could stir animosity from big media owners. Tougher competition, shrinking revenues and dwindling audiences make running a media company in Indonesia an increasingly expensive proposition. Few people who favor independent journalism have pockets deep enough and skin thick enough to take on the challenge.

In Indonesia, few people who favor independent journalism have pockets deep enough to take on the challenge

Of course, there are exceptions. Tempo, the magazine I work for, is one of them. Founded by author and journalist Goenawan Mohamad in 1971 as a weekly newsmagazine of narrative journalism, Tempo evolved to become the country’s leading muckraker, uncovering many scandals involving the police and politicians. Although regarded as the most credible voice in Indonesian media, Tempo, which was recognized for its reporting by the Missouri School of Journalism, is barely audible above the din of more popular (and populist) corporate-owned titles.

Hary Tanoesoedibjo, one of Indonesia’s wealthiest businessmen, owns Media Nusantara Citra (MNC), which runs several TV stations and two newspapers. Producers working in MNC’s newsrooms say Tanoesoedibjo regularly summons them to meetings to ask for favorable coverage of his business interests. “Once he bought an airline on the brink of bankruptcy and asked us to change our tone in reporting this company so he could turn it around,” says Dhandy Dwi Laksono, a former MNC producer. The situation became even trickier when Tanoesoedibjo launched a career in politics.

Soon after losing a leadership bid for the National Democrats, Tanoesoedibjo joined another party, Hanura, as its vice presidential candidate. Within days, his TV stations and newspapers switched allegiance, too. The MNC Media Group no longer praised the National Democrats as the ultimate savior of Indonesia. Tanoesoedibjo then started showing up in all kinds of MNC programs—from teen dramas to talk shows to the Indonesian “Idol” music contest—promoting Hanura and his vice presidential bid.

In the final days of the general parliament campaign, MNC Media Group management sent an internal memo to its employees—some journalists said they got it too—instructing them to appear at the 80,000-seat Gelora Bung Karno, Jakarta’s biggest stadium, on April 5 for a massive pro-Hanura rally. “If you are unable to attend,” the memo read, “ask permission from your supervisor.”

Tanoesoedibjo saw nothing untoward in this request. “I am the CEO,” quoted him as saying the next day. “What’s wrong with inviting my employees to an event related to me? I just invite them to a gathering.”

Bakrie and Tanoesoedibjo are typical of Indonesia’s current media landscape. Sixteen years after a pro-democracy student movement forced the military-dominated government of President Suharto out of office, freedom of the press is once again under threat from self-censorship, political interference in the newsroom, and conflicts of interest.

Media owner Aburizal Bakrie’s son, Ardie, with his family after voting, nixed coverage of his father’s political rival on a major news site he manages

Media owner Aburizal Bakrie’s son, Ardie, with his family after voting, nixed coverage of his father’s political rival on a major news site he manages

Before Suharto was ousted in 1998, journalists had to be careful not to offend “the men in uniform.” One veteran editor recalls ordering an entire page of the paper to be blacked out because government officials objected to an article and it was too late to change or replace it. Today, the call comes not from the presidential palace but from the boardroom, and the message is delivered by the editor in chief. “You know it’s not right, but you do it anyway because that’s what your boss told you,” says one TV journalist about the political pressures.

Centralization of media ownership is threatening the freedom of speech and political participation Indonesians still enjoy. A 2012 report by the Jakarta-based think tank Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance and international development organization Hivos’s regional office in Southeast Asia, funded by the Ford Foundation, found that Indonesian media ownership is concentrated in 12 large groups, about half of them controlled by businessmen-turned-politicians. “The current media oligopoly has endangered citizens’ rights to information as the media industry has become profit-led,” Yanuar Nugroho, principal investigator of the report and a research fellow at Manchester University in the U.K., wrote, “and media companies represent a profitable business which can be shaped by the owner’s interests and are thus highly beneficial for those seeking power.”

More than 90 percent of the population own a television set, so who owns those stations—and what they do with them—matters. Some fear that Indonesian TV news, stripped of its social responsibility, will cause trouble. “Many TV stations broadcast intolerant views regarding minority groups, such as the gay community, and religious sects like Ahmadiyya” (an Islamic movement that was condemned as heresy by Islamist ulema), says Shita Laksmi, a leading media activist with the Southeast Asia Technology and Transparency Initiative. “Unfortunately, that kind of content will eventually shape our culture.”

The situation is complicated by a lack of clear broadcasting regulations and the fact that media watchdogs are largely toothless. The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission has long been known for its wishy-washy stance on media cross-ownership and the repeated violation of Indonesia’s broadcasting code of conduct. The country’s press law includes an article specifically guaranteeing newsroom independence, but it is never enforced. In the days leading up to the presidential election, the chairman of the commission recommended that the government not renew the licenses for two TV stations because of their partisan political coverage.Yet the government only issued a reprimand and allowed the stations to stay on the air.

Another watchdog, the Indonesian Press Council, is in better shape, though it is a voluntary body that only works if all parties agree to comply. After receiving numerous reports about Tanoesoedibjo’s and Bakrie’s newsroom interference, the council finally released several weak statements appealing to all media stakeholders to remain independent.

The picture is even bleaker from the inside. The broadcasting commission, which oversees content and issues recommendations for frequency allocation, consists of nine members selected by parliament every three years. According to one former broadcasting commissioner, ingrained corporate interests are crippling the selection process. The most qualified candidates are routinely passed over, while those with strong ties to the broadcasting industry are selected.

Journalists working under these conditions face difficult choices. TV producer Luviana—who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name—says she was sacked from Metro TV in February 2012 because of her repeated protests against the station’s imbalanced coverage of the National Democratic Party. Surya Paloh, who owns Metro TV, is currently chairman of that party. “Most of the journalists [at Metro TV] are courageous and independent,” Luviana says, “except when they have to report about Surya Paloh and his party.” She says the edict to report only positive news about the party is unquestionable: “It’s like your employment contract: If you don’t like it, don’t work here.”

The inauguration this fall of the new Indonesia president, known as a “man of the people,” raised hopes for a cleaner government

The inauguration this fall of the new Indonesia president, known as a “man of the people,” raised hopes for a cleaner government

Before she was fired, Luviana and likeminded colleagues tried to set up a union to challenge what they felt was an unfair distribution of bonuses. A week after their first meeting, Metro TV’s human resources department asked her to resign. She refused, took her case to the industrial court and, after a long trial, lost. The judgment had a chilling effect on the Metro TV newsroom. Metro TV journalists interviewed for this article didn’t want to talk about the issues. “I just want to work,” one says. “I don’t talk about internal politics.”

Change is coming, however, mostly from the digital world. The VIVAnews and MNC episodes were all widely discussed on social media, sparking a nationwide debate about the role of the media during elections. Now, more and more journalists are using Facebook and Twitter to talk openly about what happens in editorial meetings. Some use their real names; others tweet anonymously. When Tanoesoedibjo’s representatives tried to order the newsroom in the MNC office in East Java to broadcast rosy clips of the Hanura Party last May, someone recorded the conversation and uploaded it to YouTube, where it soon went viral.

Citizen Journalism in Indonesia has unleashed criticism of the media establishment

Digital-first initiatives are starting to have an impact, too. Late last year, the Alliance of Independent Journalists launched a mobile app and website called MataMassa (which means “the eyes of the crowd”) through which journalists and netizens can report election violations, including owners’ interventions in newsrooms. Founded by undergraduate students in Jakarta, the Remotivi website is increasingly vocal in criticizing the media establishment, recently collecting thousands of online signatures to shame the broadcasting commission for its inaction.

In 2007, in the remote town of Pontianak in West Kalimantan, several journalists and activists founded community-based station Ruai TV. One of the flagship programs, Ruai SMS, is a citizen journalist project in which users send texts about the news happening around them. “The program empowers indigenous people who have no means to communicate their problems and so far have been neglected by the mainstream media,” says Ruai SMS founder Harry Surjadi.

Initiatives such as these may, in part, be responsible for the increasing resentment toward politicians who own media businesses and the poor showing of Golkar, the National Democrats, and Hanura in last April’s polls. But these are incremental changes. A permanent shift is essential. “We need to revise the press law so we have clearer regulation, especially on media monopolies and cross-ownership,” says Nezar Patria, a member of the IndonesianPress Council.

Change will be difficult, but not impossible, especially with people like Patria in the press council. He understands the issues better than most. The former deputy editor in chief at VIVAnews, he resigned immediately after receiving Ardie’s e-mail last April, not even waiting for the rooster to crow. “There are many good journalists who cannot do anything because of the pressure,” he says. “We need to do something for them.”

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