Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Muhammad Beni Saputra discuss the implications of Indonesia’s mainstream media being controlled by oligarchs.
Many cheered when Indonesian President Soeharto (1966-98) decided to leave office in 1998. It was, of course, unsurprising. The end of Soeharto’s regime was a breath of fresh air for the Indonesian society; consequently, the post-Soeharto era, dubbed the New Order, was renamed ‘the Reformation’ or, in other words, a time for change. However, Soeharto’s resignation did not bring a considerable positive transformation for the people of Indonesia. This is because the post-Soeharto era, as described by Jeffrey A Winters of Northwestern University, is the period in which democracy and oligarchy meet.
The oligarchs are a group of wealthy individuals who attempt to control the life of democracy in Indonesia. Worse, these oligarchs have gained strength by controlling the country’s mainstream media. Following Soeharto’s demise, the Indonesian press underwent a major transformation. During his tenure, freedom of the press was highly restricted and not many media outlets dared to criticise the government. Moreover, newspapers were required to go through the Ministry of Information before they were published. However, everything changed drastically after 1998. The end of the New Order gave birth to a new chapter for the Indonesian press. New media platforms, both print and electronic, sprung up with a new look and spirit. Over a period of four years (1998-2002), more than 1,200 new print media, 900 new commercial radio stations, and 5 commercial television channels were launched. To the present day, these media are no longer reluctant to excoriate the authorities or expose corruption cases to the wider public. Deregulation and privatisation of the press have been among the defining characteristics of the post-Soeharto era.
Nevertheless, the new media are controlled and managed largely by the oligarchs. What is worse is that these oligarchs had direct involvement in the country’s politics. For example, the founder and chairman of the National Democratic Party (Nasional Demokrasi), Surya Paloh, has a sizeable empire media business in Indonesia. He owns a well-known newspaper, Media Indonesia, and a very influential television channel, Metro TV. Another politician who also owns media in Indonesia is Aburizal Bakrie, the chairman of Golkar Party, which owns ANTV, TV One, and Vivanews.
Paloh had frequently been a member of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) during the Soeharto era, while Bakrie served twice as minister during the government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. If these two individuals were old actors in Indonesian politics, there is another important newcomer who is also a media tycoon, Hary Tanoesoedibjo. He is the CEO of MNC Group, which manages three private television stations (RCTI, Global TV, and MNC TV), a radio station (Trijaya), three newspapers (Seputar Indonesia, Koran Sindo, and Majalah Ekonomi), and two online media (SINDOnews.com and okezone.com). With a massive media empire, it is not surprising that Tanoesoedibjo earned the nickname of ‘the king of multimedia business’.
Tanoesoedibjo is very ambitious in participating in Indonesian politics. This was first observed when he joined Paloh’s party in 2011. Two years later, he moved to Hanura Party and declared his candidacy as Vice-President to accompany Wiranto during the 2014 presidential election. Following his elimination, a year later he founded his own party; Indonesia Unity Party (Perindo). Many have argued that Perindo was founded as a platform for Tanoesoedibjo’s ambition to run for President in 2019.
Among these oligarchs is Dahlan Iskan. He is the owner of the country’s leading newspaper, Jawa Pos, and served as a minister during Yudhoyono’s tenure. Then, there is James Riady, who owns the Lippo Group. Even though he is not a party leader, his decision to appoint Theo Sambuaga, a prominent politician of Golkar, as President of the Lippo Group is questionable. This appointment has been perceived by some as a means to advance certain political interests. Finally, Chairul Tanjung is the owner of television channels Trans TV and Trans 7, as well as online news site Detik.com. Tanjung is known for having close ties with former President Yudhoyono. Therefore, it should be no surprise that he has been appointed three times to three ministerial seats.
It is also noteworthy that these oligarchs not only control five out of six newspapers with the highest circulation, but also manage nearly all of the country’s major online news sites. In addition, renowned radio stations, both in large and small cities, are also owned by the oligarchs. Their power over Indonesian TV channels is even more powerful, where they control more than 95% across the country.
The involvement of the oligarchs in Indonesia’s political process is not without problems. There have been countless reports stating that they have used their media outlets as platforms from which to launch and promote their political ambitions. In the 2014 presidential election, for example, research conductedby Masyarakat Peduli Media (MPM) revealed the alignments of TV One and Metro TV to the owners’ political interests. As described above, the two stations are affiliated with the Golkar Party and Nasdem. The research found that the channels broadcast more news about their respective preferred candidates. The same applies to print and online media, which are proven to align to their owners and even reportedly hiding the truth. For instance, throughout the 2014 election, media owned by Tanoesoedibjo reported only about the owner and those affiliated with his party.
Other research proves the same phenomenon that the absolute power of the oligarchs over the media and their involvement in the country’s politics has made news reports in the media biased. The public is no longer served with neutral and qualified news. News reports that come out demonstrate only the perspectives of the oligarchs and limit society’s ability to obtain important and balanced information.
The power grip of the oligarchs over the press and politics in Indonesia is very strong; hence, it is apparently difficult to change. However, this does not mean that change is impossible. The government must make a concerted effort in this respect, such as creating legislation that prohibits media owners from having direct involvement in politics. If this is not done immediately, it is reasonable to expect the 2019 election as a showcase for the oligarchs to manipulate democracy in Indonesia.
Moreover, if this situation is not addressed soon, it is very likely Soeharto’s new style is rolling back. Through the control of media, oligarchs in the current democracy are planting a parasite in democracy.
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a PhD scholar at the University of Manchester.
This piece is co-authored with Muhammad Beni Saputra, a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester.