Just how free is the press in South-East Asia's largest democracy?

Just how free is the press in South-East Asia's largest democracy?

Indonesia is entering election season — this June the country will hold local elections across 17 provinces, 39 cities and 115 regencies.


Key points:

  • Indonesia's press has been given a "partly free" ranking
  • A watchdog is concerned by partisanship and recent laws affecting journalists
  • Journalists say the country is still adjusting to life after authoritarianism

A general election is set to follow in April next year, which will determine the future of the ruling party and President Joko Widodo.

Press coverage is an inseparable part of election season, representing the progress of Indonesian democracy in the almost two decades since the fall of president Suharto.

However a recent report from US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House rated Indonesia as only "partly free", with the same organisation's analysis of press freedoms last year also handing down the same judgement.

Freedom House said while Indonesia had a vibrant media landscape, a recent law regulating online publications appeared to impede the work of journalists, and the interests of media owners were driving partisan reporting.

New anti-criticism laws a worry

Senior Indonesian journalist Yulia Supadmo, who heads the Jakarta-based Rajawali TV (RTV) network, said another law passed last month also had the journalism industry concerned.

The MD3 law, as it is known in Indonesia, could see critics of the Government face legal action and may give politicians powers to compel police to haul citizens into Parliament for questioning.

Any comments that "tarnish the dignity" of the Parliament or its members could fall foul of the law.

"[The MD3 law] would make it possible for journalists to be penalised if they report any negative things," Supadmo said.

Another example is the Information and Electronic Transaction Law, introduced in 2008 and commonly referred to as the ITE law, which allows individuals to apply to have information about them published online deleted.

Articles can be deleted if the story becomes "irrelevant" — which is referred to as "the right to be forgotten" — but critics said the law allowed powerful people to retrospectively censor news stories.

"Initially, ITE law aims to limit the space of irresponsible media, but in practice, it also affects mainstream media," said Arif Zulkifli, editor-in-chief of Tempo Magazine.

Zulkifli said there was a class of politicians in Indonesia that preferred the way things were under Suharto.

"Those who still use the old ways [do so] because they still perceive the press as an obstacle for their work," he said.

Papua access remains an issue

Zulkifli said he thought press freedom in Indonesia was coming along well overall, despite the challenges faced by reporters in farther flung parts of the archipelago.

"In the past 20 years, following the 1998 revolution, our achievement has been very significant," he said.

"[But] those in Papua or local journalists in remote areas ... they don't get adequate solidarity as their fellows in big cities."

Freedom House last year criticised Indonesia for continued access restrictions in the provinces of Papua and West Papua, due to sensitivities over the long-simmering independence movement there.

Australian journalist Rebecca Henschke was kicked out of Papua last month after making social media posts that "hurt the feelings of soldiers".

Henschke, the BBC's Indonesia bureau chief, wrote tweets questioning the quality of food aid given to children affected by a measles and malnutrition outbreak in the province.

However, Zulkifli said Indonesian media had made great progress in the post-Suharto era, and outlets were no longer threatened with closure, something that used to happen frequently.

"The work of the press has since then been protected ... we have the freedom to cover or broadcast anything as long as it's in line with the public interest," he said.

Partisan media bosses turn off audiences

Dr Ross Tapsell, an Indonesian media researcher at the Australian National University, said the political interests of media owners and subsequent partisan coverage had caused Indonesians to lose trust in mainstream news outlets.

This has boosted media diversity in the online space, but with mixed results.

"This in turn allows more alternative sites online and on social media, sometimes referred to as fake news, to flourish," he said.

"People are spending more and more time on their phones on social media sites, rather than sitting passively in front of the television consuming the nightly news."

There is concern the boom of online news sites could undermine the industry's reputation.

"They're after a clicking rate, something that traps people to read their news ... the massive numbers of media who seek profit can affect people's trust," said Abdul Manan, the head of the Indonesian Alliance of Independent Journalists.

However, Zulkifli said this proliferation of media platforms was helping to address the issue of political bias.

"I don't worry about the massive numbers of current media. Yes it sometimes leads to ethical negligence, but at the end of the day it will help people to get the accurate information," he said.