Monday, February 28, 2011

The Built-In Acrimony of Indonesia's Free Press

The government is finding out the real cost of a free press: Nobody’s reputation is safe, particularly if a media owner decides to take sides politically.

Last week’s tirade from Cabinet Secretary Dipo Alam marked the peak of poor relations between the state and the press. It is by no means the first time that cabinet ministers and their master — President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono — have been upset by the media.

The complaining officials are correct, at least to a point. Many media outlets adopt extremely negative attitudes toward the government and bureaucracy, tending to ignore positive news to concentrate on their own agendas. Often, media organizations create news rather than report on it.

Kompas, one of the most respected major dailies, is a case in point. Each week, its Monday edition almost always carries a new advocacy.

Some of the newspaper’s campaigns do turn into news, such as last year’s articles on environmental damage in Kalimantan caused by uncontrolled mining leases. That prompted a visit by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of a presidential working unit on development, which led to a crackdown on licensing.

Sometimes, Kompas’s campaigns take priority over significant current events.

A few weeks ago, the newspaper’s main story was about the high price of pharmaceuticals. The president’s remarkable admission that development was hampered by five political “illnesses” was relegated to the second page.

Newspapers create news. Reporters frequently produce reports along the lines of “The government should …” after calling up their stable of experts.

While analysts often raise valid points, this type of reporting should not eclipse other current events, which are often relegated to the back pages.

Within such a system, there is plenty of space for bias. Dipo’s complaint was that three media outlets — Media Indonesia, Metro TV and TVOne — were actively campaigning to blacken the reputation of the government.

Media Indonesia and Metro TV are owned by Surya Paloh, founder of the National Democrats (Nasdem) mass organization, while TVOne is owned by Golkar Party chairman Aburizal Bakrie and his family.

Attacking the government clearly brings benefits to the owners, serving their own particular political ambitions.

Bakrie probably believes his money and influence can win him the presidency, while Surya, spurned for years by Golkar, presumably believes he can turn his new social organization into a political force that can help him further his own ambitions.

The problem for the government and other “enemies” of the press is that attacking the media is a hopeless task — much to Dipo’s chagrin.

Freed from the yoke of tyranny by former President B.J. Habibie, the media industry has no interest in being shackled once more.

There has been controversy over whether infotainment programs should be classified as news or if they are in a completely different category and should thus be more strictly controlled.

In July last year, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) issued a fatwa, or edict, barring Muslims from watching “immoral” gossip shows.

The ensuing controversy ended with an agreement that the programs would self-regulate — a process which, to date, has not changed these shows’ penchant for poking into the lives of celebrities and public figures, as well as constantly regaling audiences with the details of scandal after scandal.

Dipo, the cabinet secretary, has found that it is not that easy to restrain independent media outlets.

In response to Dipo’s threat to cut the three media organizations’ access to information and state-funded advertising, Media Indonesia and Metro TV accused the cabinet secretary of breaching laws safeguarding press freedom.

Dipo refused to apologize for his threat, but he agreed to mediated talks with the media outlets.

However, at a press conference on Thursday, Dipo blamed the media for discouraging foreign investment by reporting on political bickering and social conflict. “Does that kind of news reporting benefit all of us?” he asked.

The point of his criticism, Dipo said, was that the press had not provided enough information to the public about the government’s accomplishments despite the many challenges it faced.

Dipo perhaps needs to take a leaf from the president’s book.

Yudhoyono, stung by criticism from religious leaders earlier this year that his government was too fond of lying about its achievements, gave a speech recently that essentially acknowledged the weaknesses of his administration.

The admission may be the first step to solving the nation’s problems and creating a better Indonesia.

Discourse almost always boils down to whether the glass is half empty or half full. And while spin is a natural tool of any government — or any company, public institution or media organization with vested interests, for that matter — excessive spin will alienate the audience.

Most people will immediately recognize half-truths, biases and blatantly wrong information fed to them.

During the Suharto era, the government funded the National Development Information Office through a contract with international public relations firm Hill & Knowlton. A highly expensive operation, it was canned well before the economic crisis hit. But it did serve a valuable function in “selling” the country to investors and foreign media.

Yudhoyono and Dipo should perhaps look at more effective ways of selling the government’s message, which should be bolstered by hard facts.

Up until Yudhoyono’s admission that there were ills plaguing the nation, no one wholeheartedly believed the stories of progress his administration tried hard to sell. How could they? The media repeatedly pointed out that a vast majority of the population remained poor despite so-called economic leaps.

On the flip side, the media should be made to understand that they are not a law unto themselves.

The decline in professional standards has been evident over the past few years and this will no doubt result in the cancellation of subscriptions and the switching of channels from unscrupulous operators to more reliable ones.

There is some merit to Dipo’s claim that some media organizations are biased. Naming specific examples of shoddy journalism at regular news conferences at the State Palace could stop journalists from twisting facts. Hopefully, this would lead to a more responsible press.

However, journalists are usually thick-skinned — let us say it is an occupational hazard. Since it will take time for improvements in the media’s ethical standards, the state needs to develop a set of rules as well. By Keith Loveard security analyst at Jakarta-based Concord Consulting.

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