As of Sept. 9, 2011, media baron Hary Tanoesudibjo, the owner of MNC Group, has officially chaired the board of experts at the newly established Nasdem Party. His formal ties with a party must be seen as part of a new trend in this country’s contemporary politics in which the media owners articulate their political views.
Hary followed in the footstep of Viva Group media owner Aburizal Bakrie, the chairman of the Golkar Party, and Metro TV news channel owner Surya Paloh, the founder of National Democrat mass organization, which later gave birth to the Nasdem Party.
What’s wrong with media owners’ move to take part in politics here in Indonesia? From the political right point of view, it is permissible for them to be deeply involved in political parties, but such moves will spark controversy and hurt our young democracy.
While the rise of media owners in Indonesian politics may lead to a change of national leadership and mainstream ideology, it will put the national media’s performance and democratic political communication at risk.
Needless to say, the mass media has the power to shape the public mindset. Walter Lippmann (1922), in his book Public Opinion, says the mass media serves an important role in the construction of the public mindset. Maxwell McCombs, Donald L. Shaw, and David Weaver (1997) also say the mass media plays a key role in the public agenda-setting processes.
Because of the power of the mass media, mass communication scholars have consistently reminded us that the mass media has to stick to its normative performance and democratic institutions (McQuail, 1992; 2005). Moreover, as one of the democratic pillars, mass media industries need to present their media performance in objective, neutral and impartial ways (McQuail, 1992; 2005). Although it is hard to fulfill those requirements, the mass media has a public duty to provide the public with unbiased information.
For a few decades, communication scholars have been split over the standard of media performance. Some, including McQuil, proposed the normative theory, which maintains that mass media must fulfill objectivity, neutrality and impartiality with or without support from their internal organization and external environment. On the other hand, some communication and journalism scholars view that it is impossible for mass media to meet these requirements, although they insist that the mass media must serve public interests.
Here, two problems arise. First, while mass media owners have deep relationships with or deep involvement in political parties, it is difficult for the media to avoid influence by the potential interests of their owners. By using the content analysis method, we can see a private news channel during the 2004 and 2009 election campaigns tended to endorse a certain presidential ticket because of the candidate’s close political ties to the media owners. Today, we see advertisements for the Nasdem Party appearing more frequently on Metro TV and MNC Group channels.
Even though there are many restrictions against media abuses prior to and during elections, most of the perpetrators have gone unpunished. Most media outlets are still, and without fear of punishment, able to abuse their power and present partial, subjective and biased reporting of political information, especially during the elections, which — directly and indirectly — benefits media owners, not only in business but also in terms of politics.
Second, the rise of media owners who are involved in practical political contestation will endanger public interests. While it is difficult to define what public interests are, protecting public interests is the main duty of mass media in democratic countries. If mass media is subject to the personal or political interests of its owners, in many ways the public interests will be sacrificed if not threatened.
The dislocation of public interests will increase if mass media loses its independence from political parties that own and, hence, control them. Unfortunately, our media watchdogs, the broadcasting commission and broadcasting and media regulations hold insufficient power to keep media abuses by their owners in check.
There is an urgent need for new regulations that ban potential abuses of mass media by their politically wired owners. This regulation must cover many aspects, including political reporting and advertising in mass media. The new regulation should strictly ban media intervention by media owners for certain political agenda whether during elections or on normal days.
It is time for the government and House of Representatives — especially Commission I and II, due to their lawmaking powers, to protect public interests against media abuses.
The writer is a lecturer at the School of Communication Science, Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta.