The Indonesian parliament passes a controversial broadcasting bill that some praise but most fear mark a return to the repression past Indonesian governments have used to control the media.
Indonesia's new broadcasting bill was discussed for more than three years and was one of the most hotly debated measures in parliament since the fall of the autocratic ruler President Suharto. Hundreds of media people demonstrated for two days outside parliament to try to block it. They wanted to preserve the freedoms in place since 1998, when Mr. Suharto's heavy press restrictions were lifted. At the center of the debate is whether the bill, once signed into law by Indonesia's President, will allow press freedom to continue.
Ade Armando is a professor of communications at the University of Indonesia. He points out that until now, all 11 of Indonesia's private television stations broadcast nationwide from the capital, Jakarta. Broadcasting, he says, simply did not reflect the numerous groups across the sprawling Indonesian archipelago. Mr. Armando says the new law makes it easier to operate television and radio networks in Indonesia's outlying provinces. "Up to now, all of the viewers in Indonesia can only view programs that were aired from Jakarta," he explained. "So it was very, very centralized, very, very undemocratic and it betrayed the idea of plurality and diversity." Critics say the bill is riddled with loopholes that take power away from the press and broadcasters. Local stations are now forbidden, in most cases, to broadcast foreign news live. Instead, they must wait at least a few minutes before they broadcast it. This way, stations can be held accountable for the content of what is aired, including reports by foreign news services. Lance Alloway is the Indonesia Country Director of Internews, a U.S.-funded organization that promotes independent media. He says the bill, by not allowing live programming, or relays, makes it easier to take a broadcaster to court or to shut down a station. "So if you've got a foreign news broadcast that says something that someone would like to challenge in the courts if it's a rebroadcast they can hold the local broadcaster accountable," said Lance Alloway. "If it's a relay, it's more difficult to exercise leverage over broadcasters under international jurisdiction." Mr. Alloway also points out that the bill restricts content, limiting sex, violence, and news. Those restrictions are broad and vague. Content will be monitored by a new agency called the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission, called the KPI. How the KPI would be administered is another source of fierce debate. An earlier draft of the broadcast bill called for parliament to appoint a body made up of individuals not affiliated with the government to the KPI. These people would monitor and regulate television and radio broadcasts, and deal with licensing for networks.
But the law now says the KPI will be appointed by parliament and must answer to the president. That means if a senior member of the government does not like an entertainment or news broadcast, foreign or local, the president can shut down the local broadcaster. Indonesia's State Minister for Communications and Information, Syamsul Mu'arif, says the government has no intention of controlling the media. But some are not so sure. One skeptic is Leo Batubara, the coordinator of the Indonesian Press and Broadcasting Society. He says the government is indeed trying to restrict press freedom because the media has exposed misdeeds. "In the last four years our media has been actually exposing so many corruption, so many abuses of human rights that occur during the Suharto regime," he said. "You know that these legislators are involved in money politics. So the media talks about this." Mr. Batubara says Indonesian media have had a direct impact on government officials in parliament, called the DPR. "To some extent they hate us because we talk too much about the corruption done in the DPR," said Mr. Batubara. "They this is the reason why they want to control, direct our media, especially in this broadcasting law." Mr. Batubara says the Indonesian Press and Broadcasting Society is preparing to challenge the new law in supreme court. The battle for Indonesia's airwaves, it seems, may not be over yet.