Freedom From The Press


“Goebbels was in favor of free speech he liked.  So was Stalin.   If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise.  Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.”   Noam Chomsky, American linguist, historian and social critic.

Irawan Ronodipuro

IO – Attacks on the media are nothing new.  In the United States, Donald Trump regularly lambasts the mainstream media (an exception being Fox News, his favorite conservative cable news network) as the “enemy of the people” and purveyors of “fake news” whenever they don’t report on his presidency in a favorable light.

In this era of political polarization and democracy under assault by elected officials, Trump has plenty of company—in the Americas, Europe and Asia alike, the term “fake news” has become increasingly popular coinage. It also has menacing consequences with journalists and media owners around the world on the defensive as governments abuse laws on libel to silence their critics.

Very simply, leaders following Trump’s example are determined to turn the democratic principle of freedom of the press on its head by seeking to invoke a new one:  freedom from the press.

Indonesia is no exception, only with a twist.  Instead of having to face an inquisitive and critical-minded press corps, the incumbent president Jokowi enjoys the advantages of a subservient media industry.

The reason for this subservience is simple.  Business tycoons—the likes of James Riady, Surya Paloh, Aburizal Bakrie and Hary Tanosoedibjo—dominate media outlets through television, radio and newspapers.  Wanting to preserve and expand their business empires outside the media, they also understand the value of currying favor with the president and his administration.   As an example, when one media owner was asked by his senior staff about the newspaper’s editorial policy on covering national politics, his answer was “you can cover and report on whatever you want without my interference.  But there is an exception.  Just make sure you never criticize the president.”

It is a situation that would make Donald Trump green with envy.  But rather than having freedom from the press, Jokowi basks in the freedom from a critical press without even having to resort to repressive measures.  It is quite literally the equivalent of what would happen, for example, if American oil and pharmaceutical companies were to take ownership of media giants such as CNN and the New York Times.

Because the Indonesian media has a vested interest in making sure Jokowi is reported in the most favorable light possible, bias is rampant.  Their playbook is a classic: publishing more articles on the faults and weaknesses of the opposition than to those of the ruling coalition, devoting less space on reporting the crimes of those in power, and making sure story sources are mostly Indonesian government officials and ‘experts’ friendly to the incumbent president.

This bias is evident not only in the types of stories being reported and how, but also by differences in language used in writing the articles.  Jokowi is commonly described, for example, as a “reformist” and “honest” without ever mentioning instances where he has been more conformist or less forthcoming with the public than he should.

There are, however, a few exceptions in the media industry that most surely serve as a thorn in the side of Jokowi—these are found in the on-line ‘alternative media’ (sometimes called the Fifth Estate) as well with this publication, the Independent Observer.   Which is precisely why a recent cover story in our newspaper, ‘New Hope vs. Unfulfilled Promises’, caught the ire of the Jokowi administration and the president’s coalition partners.

The article—which (rightly) criticized Jokowi for failing to fulfill his campaign promises of the last election—did not result in a reasoned rebuttal from Jokowi or his political sponsors.  Rather, it resulted in verbal attacks, dutifully reported by the mainstream media without commentary, falsely accusing the Indonesian Observer of unethical journalism.  Charles Honoris, a PDI-P legislator, implied our newspaper has broken the law.  He also issued a thinly veiled threat, saying the people behind the Indonesian Observer should ‘reflect’ on the Obor Rakyat case (in which so-called ‘intellectual actors’ behind the former tabloid were imprisoned for allegedly defaming Jokowi).

Such bullying tactics are neither surprising given their sources nor will they deter the Indonesian Observer from continuing to provide our readers with a fact-based alternative source of news.  We stand behind our argument on Jokowi’s unfulfilled promises, something we will unremittingly cover since it is an issue which deeply resonates with the Indonesian electorate: the accountability of the president.

It would be naïve to expect Mr. Honoris, and other like-minded politicians, to refrain from more attacks in the future.  The fact a huge fuss has been made over our cover story means, very tellingly, a very sensitive sore has been opened.  Why can’t they, the rich and powerful—the same individuals who dominate or determine media coverage—simply reply with counter-arguments instead of issuing threatening statements such as “all things have legal consequences?”   They should be mindful that evasiveness too has its consequences—only in this case, it is in the ballot box.