Opinion

Indonesia’s local elections
and impartiality of the
press

At the end of 2012, the media provided its outlook for the New Year. For its part, The Jakarta Post sees 2013 as the run-up to the 2014 general elections and the nation’s choice of a new president. In this run-up, 2013 hosts a smattering of local elections throughout the country, with 15 of Indonesia’s 33 provinces electing a governor.

The gubernatorial elections start Jan. 22 in South Sulawesi and end on Oct. 2 in Lampung. In between are elections in Papua (Jan. 29), West Java (Feb. 24), North Sumatra (March 7), East Nusa Tenggara (March 18), West Nusa Tenggara (May 13), Bali (May 15), Central Java (May 26), South Sumatra (June 6), East Kalimantan (June 26), North Maluku (July 1), Maluku (July 11), East Java (Aug. 29) and Riau (Sept. 4).

With the removal of the central government’s control at the end of Soeharto’s New Order era (1966-1998), the press can now function freely as a public watchdog. “The news media has contributed significantly in making sure that the outcomes of general and local elections are based on truly informed choices,” Endy Bayuni writes in the November-December 2011 issue of the Jakarta-based journal Strategic Review.

“If politicians have skeletons in their closets — and many of them do — the news media will most likely uncover them,” Endy continues.

The press works as the check on the track record of political parties and candidates for public office. The question now is whether the press has skeletons in its own closet. This is a query that arose during the 2009 general elections that returned President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to a second and final five-year term in office.

In the 2009 legislative and presidential elections, media people were active in political campaigns.

“A number of senior journalists also got heavily involved as political advisers to candidates, but they continued to work as journalists. How can they be independent and maintain their ethical consciousness when they write about the general election and the candidate they advise and the other candidates who are the political opponents of their ‘client’?” asked Irawan Saptono on page 159 of the 2010 ISAI study Media, Pemilu dan Politik (Media, General Elections and Politics).

ISAI, Institute of Information Flow Studies, is a nonprofit media research center in Jakarta.

American journalism has its own election-time quandary. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan ran for the White House, columnist George Will advised the Republican candidate on how to debate incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter. On ABC TV’s Nightline, Will praised Reagan’s performance. When Will’s coaching of Reagan became public knowledge, the journalist was roundly panned by his peers. In a 2005 column, Will admitted his role in helping Reagan was “inappropriate”.

It appears that in any democracy today, come election time, the independence of journalists can come under question. Media people engaged in political advocacy fall into the conflict-of-interest trap. On the one hand, they serve the political interest of a candidate. On the other, they have a journalistic obligation to report the truth and ensure their first loyalty is to the public.

For Indonesia’s 2013 local elections, journalists are likely to get embroiled in campaign activities. Media owners with political ambitions also factor in. Three press magnates with a declared political agenda are Aburizal Bakrie, Surya Paloh and Hary Tanoesoedibjo.

Bakrie is chair of the Golkar Party. Golkar has named Bakrie its presidential candidate for 2014. Bakrie owns the all-news television channel TVOne, ANTV and the Vivanews online service. Surya was formerly a Golkar chief. He left the party after losing the chairmanship contest to Aburizal and formed the National Democrat Party (NasDem).

Surya owns the similarly all-news Metro TV and the Media Indonesia daily. Surya has partnered with Hary, CEO of PT Media Nusantara Citra. MNC has MNC TV and RCTI, Seputar Indonesia daily, SINDO weekly magazine, and SINDO Radio.

President Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party has its own media outlet, the Jurnal Nasional daily. TVOne and ANTV almost daily run clips promoting the electability of Bakrie. Meanwhile Metro TV, MNC TV and RCTI extol the virtues of NasDem.

The link between the media and political parties is a reality manifested in five forms, Priyambodo RH, executive director of the Dr Soetomo Press Institute (LPDS), observed. One, media owners become political party leaders. Two, journalists have become party functionaries. Three, journalists have joined the campaign teams of political parties. Four, journalists have become candidates for local public office. Five, journalists have become politicians in the House of Representatives and local legislatures.

Given that political party journalists are in the minority, their presence, however, begs the question of how far press freedom in their media outlets will be affected. In the eyes of the public, their credibility can suffer if their primary loyalty is to a political interest and not the public interest.

The 2006 Journalism Code of Ethics, drafted by 29 journalist and media organizations, explicitly spells out what makes the Indonesian journalist. Article 1 states: “The Indonesian journalist is independent and produces news stories that are accurate, balanced and without malice.” The article then elaborates on the term “independent”. “Independent means reporting events or facts in line with one’s conscience without interference, coercion and intervention from other parties including the owners of the press corporation.”

Come the local elections and the 2014 legislative and presidential elections, journalists will have to grapple with the consequences of not abiding by the code of ethics they themselves determined and pledged to uphold.

The writer teaches at the Dr. Soetomo Press Institute (LPDS), Jakarta.

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