As the Indonesian media celebrated National Press Day over the weekend, calls mounted for it to remain independent amid efforts to control it for political purposes.
The country’s third president, BJ Habibie, credited for lifting the curb on press freedom imposed by the New Order regime, called on media barons to stop the abuse of their media outlets for personal and political interests.
“Our press is now free from government intervention, but has it been liberated from political interests? If owners of media companies suddenly nominate themselves to become leader of the country, how can they can produce objective news?” Habibie said in his address to media executives on Saturday.
Later on Saturday, Habibie received the Press Independence Gold award from the Indonesian Journalist Association (PWI). The PWI was the only journalistic organization allowed to operate under the New Order regime.
Habibie received the award for his policies that freed the media from government intervention in the late 1990s, following the downfall of president Soeharto.
Habibie also called on owners of media companies to shift their focus to improving the welfare and professionalism of their journalists.
Numerous media outlets in the country are now controlled by politicians, whose parties will contest the 2014 election.
The new chairman of the NasDem party, Surya Paloh, is the owner of Metro TV news channel and Media Indonesia daily.
Politicians with their fingers in the media pie include Golkar Party chairman and presidential candidate Aburizal Bakrie, who runs news channel TVOne, ANTV and the Vivanews online news portal and Hary Tanoesoedibjo, who controls the country’s largest media network PT Media Nusantara Citra (MNC).
Hary recently parted company with NasDem and is expected to join another established political party.
Chairman of the Press Council Bagir Manan said politicians’ control of the media could not do much harm to the country’s fledgling democracy.
“Let’s say we have five media outlets with their own political agendas and 500 others that are not controlled by politicians. Why worry? The audience play a crucial role in controlling the mass media. They will leave media outlets that put political interests over the public interests,” he said.
Bagir also said that the Press Council could do little to prevent abuse of the media by political interests.
“If we come up with a regulation, what penalties we can apply? If a media outlet publishes an editorial criticizing the government, do we need to put them behind bars? This will be against press freedom,” Bagir, a former Supreme Court chief justice, said.
Separately, Communications and Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring said politicians’ control over broadcasting media was a result of the weak power wielded by the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI).
He said the commission lacked the authority to punish those who violated the broadcasting law.
“Media owners can fight lawsuits launched by the KPI,” he said.
To address the situation, the ministry plans to draft a regulation that could guarantee harsh punishment, including the revocation of broadcasting licences for errant media outlets.
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