Politics: Republic of Indonesia
Politics: Republic of Indonesia

The media plays an important role in politics.  It can keep the powerful in check by making their actions transparent.  It also enables the powerful to get a general sense of the zeitgeist, public opinion.

Indonesia is a populous, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual island nation with an important economy.  The republic’s transition from an authoritarian system to a democratic one makes it an excellent case study for the media’s role in politics.

In Indonesia, the “New Order” was the authoritarian form of government through which Suharto ruled Indonesia from 1966 when he replaced Sukarno as leader until 1998.  In an attempt to establish order, “the New Order effectively barred political activism and even political debates” (Sen, 2000).  Under the pretext of combating communism, the new government killed half a million people and imprisoned another half a million. “That this myth was repeated in the media is well-known.  What is more interesting… is that the story was not believed by large sections of the Indonesian population” (Sen, 2000). 

In order to maintain control in the face of riots, Suharto weakened the bases of liberal influence—universities, the civil service and the press. Suharto then relied on strong economic growth and increasing integration with the world economy to enhance his grip  Eventually—starting in the mid-1980s—international oil prices did drop, according to the oil and gas index, but by then Suharto’s grip was firm (Sen, 2000). 

After the recovery, the economy was more deregulated and diversified, but the Asian financial crisis of 1997 wiped out years of growth.   With communism no longer a threat, it became increasingly difficult for the regime to maintain such strict control over the media and a period of keterbukaan—or openness—permeated the nation.  Then, in June 1994, three popular news magazines were banned; unlike previous riots and demonstrations, sustained and organized criticism—including, but not limited to, legal challenges and middle class protests—was aimed at the government (Sen, 2000). 

Journalists still face threats of violence from the public and from the state. In 2011, journalists were attacked on multiple occasions by angry constituents. The State Intelligence Law was passed in October 2011 restricting Indonesians’ access to official information and allows the state intelligence agency to intercept private communications without a warrant. While Indonesia has passed freedom of information laws, the implementation has been spotty (SEAPA. 2012). The law has been challenged in human rights courts, including the UN, stating that it was a basic violation of civil liberties, while no action has been taken against it yet; the country has lost standing as being considered a free country (Refworld, 2012).

What advantages would a government have from controlling the press?  Disadvantages?  If you were opposed to a government and that government prevented you from using the media to convey your opinions, what would you do?  What risks could this involve?

To learn more about media and democracy, watch the following video by Seth Pinsky, President and CEO of NYC Economic Development Corporation, as he discusses how media can be used to promote democracy: http://www.levininstitute.org/media2020.cfm.


* Picture: http://www.indonesiamatters.com/86/indonesian-provinces-map/


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