Hundreds of independent media have emerged since Indonesia began a transition to democracy in 1998, making it a pioneer in this domain in Southeast Asia. But they struggle to meet the needs of the 275 million Indonesians who spread out over 12,000 islands and speak more than 800 languages. Indonesia’s huge size and diversity make respect for press freedom a daily battle.
Press freedom was non-existent during President Suharto’s long reign from 1966 to 1998. Today, the number of journalists is estimated at 100,000 and more than 300 newspapers are published. They include the daily Kompas, the newspaper of record, with a circulation of more than half a million, and the weekly Tempo, which has built a solid reputation for investigative journalism. TV is a major news source, with many privately owned networks, such as Indosiar, SCTV and Metro TV, competing at the national level with the state broadcaster, Televisi Republik Indonesia (TVRI). As many Indonesians are isolated geographically, radio plays a decisive role in keeping them abreast of the news. There are more than 3,000 radio stations that, in addition to Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, broadcast programmes in about 20 other languages.
First elected in 2014 on a reform platform, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo did not keep his promises about press freedom, and his re-election in May 2019 shed light on the concessions he has been forced to make to the ultra-conservative armed forces, known officially as the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI). The military carefully prevents the media from covering its use of force to suppress separatist protests in the two provinces that make up Papua, the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea, which continues to be an information black hole where journalists cannot work.
The 1999 press law ended the Suharto era’s censorship and control of information and led to the creation of the Dewan Pers, a press council which is independent of the government and which, over the years, has established itself as an institution capable of settling most media-related disputes out of court. Journalists must nevertheless contend with a blasphemy law that makes it hard to criticise religions, and with the Law on Informasi dan Transaksi Elektronik (the ITE law), under which journalists can be jailed for up to six years for online defamation (article 27) or online hate speech (article 28), although these offences are not clearly defined. In 2020, the government took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to reinforce its repressive weaponry against journalists, who are now banned from publishing not only “false information” about the pandemic but also any “information hostile to the president or government”, even if it is unrelated to the pandemic.
Around ten conglomerates, including Global Mediacomm (MCM), Jawa Pos Group (JPG) and Kompas Gramedia Group (KGG), share most of the mainstream media market. Already volatile, it has been undermined by the impact of the pandemic, which has led to many journalists being laid off – 20 to 30% of the payroll of more than half of the media. Radio, which requires smaller investments, is the medium in which Indonesians have the most confidence. The online media meanwhile suffer from an advertising shortage, which translates into journalistic standards with much room for improvement.
The world’s largest Muslim country and a cradle of religious tolerance, Indonesia is under growing pressure from radical Islamic movements. This is especially so in Aceh, an autonomous western province where a very strict version of the Sharia is in force and where a morality police dictates what newspapers can and cannot publish. In the rest of the country, Muslim scholar influence prevents journalists from tackling certain taboo subjects such as LGBT rights, apostasy and child marriage.
Journalists who investigate cases of local corruption are often subjected to various forms of intimidation by police or soldiers ranging from arrest to physical violence. This results in a high level of self-censorship. It can also be dangerous for journalists to cover environmental issues when they affect large private interests that are supported by local officials.