Indonesian media picking sides and losing credibility

JUNE 8 — The head-to-head race between presidential candidates Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto has made it hard for consumers of information in Indonesia to believe what they read or watch anymore.

From one-sided coverage, tendentious headlines, out-of-context quotes to the use of non-political TV shows to increase a candidate’s face time, it’s easy to lose faith in the media these days.

When it comes to reporting on the presidential campaign, impartiality has become a rare commodity among many news outlets, thanks to their owners’ political affiliations.

This has been an ongoing trend after the liberalisation of the media sector following the1998 Reforms which attracted a number of tycoons to build their own media empires. But never has the political polarization within the media reached such a heightened level.

Of the 12 largest media groups that control nearly all of Indonesia’s media channels, including broadcasting, print media and online media, at least half of them are owned by businessmen with varying degrees of political stakes in this election.

The three most prominent of them are Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie, National Democratic Party (NasDem) chairman Surya Paloh, and Hary Tanoesoedibjo of the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura).

Bakrie controls anTV, TVOne and the online site VIVA.co.id; and Hary owns the MNC Group. Both have thrown in their support for Prabowo, having themselves dropped out of the presidential race due to insufficient support.

Between Bakrie’s two TV stations and Hary’s three, they have a combined of 40 per cent audience share. In comparison, Jokowi’s supporter Surya Paloh, who owns Metro TV, has only 2 per cent audience share.

A more recent player in Indonesian politics, Hary was closely tied to the Suharto family and he rose to power with his multimedia empire following its downfall, even as he was embroiled in a legal fight with Suharto’s eldest daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana.

Having been linked to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in the past, Hary has switched political allegiances twice. First, he left NasDem Party to be the running mate of Hanura’s presidential candidate of Wiranto, and then last month he split with Wiranto, who joined the Jokowi camp.

Shortly after his declaration of support, Prabowo appeared on one of Hary’s TV stations RCTI, handing out prizes at the finale of the highly rated show Indonesian Idol. This was not the first time he pushed the envelope. In February, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission pulled two television shows from his broadcaster off the air for promoting Hanura.

But other TV stations were also found to have violated campaign regulations through advertising and news reports. KPI declared that five of the 10 free-to-air national television stations have been partial in their coverage of the presidential election. Bakri’s TVOne and Hary’s RCTI, MNC TV and Global TV give the largest portion of their political news coverage to the Prabowo-Hatta Rajasa campaign, while Metro TV’s coverage is partial towards the Jokowi-Kalla ticket.

Other media groups also belong to businessmen with known political affiliations. Chairul Tanjung, who owns Trans TV, Trans 7, and the popular Detik Online, is a close ally of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and was recently appointed to replace Hatta as the chief economics minister,

Media tycoon Dahlan Iskan of the Jawa Post Group, which owns the influential Jawa Pos and some 150 local newspapers, is a minister in the Yudhoyono Cabinet. He has publicly supported Jokowi.

The battle of information is being fought in print as well, most visibly in the digital media. A quick look at several of the most widely read news sites show which candidates they lean towards just by looking at the angles of their reports, the photographs they use and the people they interview.

The situation places many Indonesian journalists, who try to maintain neutrality in their coverage, in a difficult situation.

A woman kisses Indonesia’s presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (centre) as Golkar Party chief Aburizal Bakrie (left) watches during a campaign in Bandung, Indonesia’s West Java province June 5, 2014. — Picture by Reuters
A woman kisses Indonesia’s presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (centre) as Golkar Party chief Aburizal Bakrie (left) watches during a campaign in Bandung, Indonesia’s West Java province June 5, 2014. — Picture by Reuters

In early April, an email from Ardiansyah Bakrie, the son of Aburizal and President of VIVA.co.id emerged in which he berated the top executives for allowing a Jokowi advertisement placed on the most visible spot on the website, and told those who refuse to remove the advertisement to resign.

A friend who works in a more neutral media group told of a recent meeting with the group’s owner, a politically connected tycoon, in which he told all the chief editors of its media outlets to put out more stories on Prabowo.

Though not formally part of the presidential race, the tycoon told the editors that he had been “warned” to tone down stories on Jokowi.

Clearly, the government censorship of the past has been replaced by media oligarchy and the political involvement of media owners at the expense of ordinary consumers of information.

Thankfully, some media organizations manage to remain mostly independent — although to the informed it is not a secret that their owners and newsroom leaders are mostly leaning towards Jokowi.

Among them are the Kompas Gramedia Group, one of the oldest in the media business, which owns the influential Kompas daily and a network of newspapers across the archipelago (including the English-language The Jakarta Post), as well as Tempo magazine and newspaper. Despite their natural political leaning, both groups have so far maintained their editorial independence, producing reports that still uphold journalistic principles.

The rest of the media realm, however, is a noisy, anything-goes jungle where disinformation including the untruths and half-truths flow more freely than actual information.

A woman kisses Indonesia’s presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (centre) as Golkar Party chief Aburizal Bakrie (left) watches during a campaign in Bandung, Indonesia’s West Java province June 5, 2014. — Picture by Reuters

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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