Amidst screaming headlines, the tabloids are recreating political culture
Politics always comes to us mediated, transformed, and interpreted through the mass media. It is not unusual that the media should be partisan. Under the New Order, 'reading between the lines' was an essential skill to understand anything approximating reality as most people saw it. This skill is even more necessary in the euphoria of press freedom since the fall of Suharto. If previously the skill needed was to fill in the gaps for yourself, now you need a healthy scepticism and access to a variety of media in order to estimate what to discount and what to pay attention to.
One of the most striking aspects of the current wave of press freedom has been the growth in the number of new publications. Since Suharto's resignation, the Ministry of Information has approved almost 1000 new permits. This is in addition to the 200-300 existing ones under the New Order. Much of this press explosion consists of politically oriented tabloids produced weekly, available at a cheap price and with a mass distribution network (often supported by an existing daily). Such tabloids often claim to report the 'news behind the news', full of 'scenarios', conspiracy theories, sensational language, accusations and counter-accusations.
The first to appear in the early post-Suharto days was DeTak. This was in fact a reappearance, being a reincarnation of DeTik closed down by the New Order in 1994 together with Tempo and Editor. Although its circulation is now smaller than newer, cheaper and more sensational tabloids, DeTak relies on a reputation for quality journalism. Competition is intense and tabloids without an established reputation, a captive market, or some kind of special characteristic ('ciri khas') have little hope of surviving.
A major 'special effect' is to be as sensational as possible. This tendency is prominent in the cheaper tabloids such as Oposisi and Bangkit, which appeared respectively in August and October 1998. Bangkit, entering the market at only Rp1000, became an immediate hit with its prominent white on black background headlines announcing such things as: 'WATCH OUT - THE NEXT 40 DAYS RIOTS EVERYWHERE' ('AWAS 40 HARI INI RUSUH DI MANA-MANA'), or 'RAPED... and for heaven's sake... their livers EATEN RAW' ('DIPERKOSA dan astaga... hati mereka DIMAKAN MENTAH-MENTAH'). Bangkit is part of the Kompas media group. Through its regional newspaper network, the Kompas group has also established several regional political tabloids including Kontras (Aceh), Demo (Palembang), Bebas (Banjarmasin), and Vokal (Yogyakarta). The latter is aimed largely at students and takes a more educated approach.
Oposisi, from the rival Jawa Pos group, appears to be more conscious of its mission ('critical and on the side of truth' is its slogan) rather than just chasing sensation for the sake of it. Judging from its circulation figures, which are always sensitive to price rises, Oposisi is probably the most popular political tabloid at the moment.
Other political tabloids with a national scope include Realitas (associated with Surya Paloh's Media Indonesia group), Tokoh (mostly interviews with public figures), Siaga (established by Golkar figure Eki Syachrudin), Berita Keadilan (focussing on the law and published by the same company that produces the PDI-P tabloid Demokrat ) and Perspektif. Many others have national pretensions but are really only regional in scope. This includes Format and Mimbar Demokrasi from Semarang, Gaung Demokrasi in Jakarta and West Java, Penta (Jakarta), Asasi (Aceh), and Opini (Solo). There are no doubt many more.
Although political tabloids flood the market, and more seem to appear every day, the public is gradually becoming bored with a diet of pure politics. The established tabloids are diversifying into other fields such as crime, mysticism, entertainment, and sex in order to maintain sales.
Bangkit and Oposisi have not been averse to including fortune telling (ramalan) and mystical stories, especially if a political connection can be found. Posmo (also Jawa Pos) combines politics, alternative medicine, and mysticism. Selling at the rather high price of Rp1500 it remains the most popular of the politically related tabloids in Yogyakarta. No one seems concerned whether the predictions of future bloodletting come true or not (most don't). The main factor in their popularity is their entertainment value.
The Jawa Pos group also produces Gugat, which focusses on politics and sex-related crime. It will soon give birth to another more 'specific' tabloid provisionally named Karmasutra. SkandaL, another new tabloid more distantly related to the Jawa Pos group, has the slogan 'sex, money, power'.
Other tabloids have a more 'Islamic' slant. Adil was originally resuscitated by the ICMI newspaper Republika. It is now independent and fairly objective in its approach. Not so the newer Republika tabloid Tekad, which seems to have a great deal of trouble in its approach to reformasi, unable to decide whether it should be attacking or defending the governing party Golkar and the military. Along with the smaller Islamic party tabloids, Tekad now prefers to focus its attention on the disagreeable aspects of Megawati's PDI-Perjuangan.
The range and diversity of tabloids available indicates the great diversity of political opinion and cultural orientation previously hidden but never extinguished under the monolithic New Order. These differences are more clearly seen in the tabloid press than in the dailies.
During the election campaign the tabloids gave a clear picture of the battle between different political discourses in Indonesia. The battle mainly revolves around the definition of the words 'reformasi' and 'Islam'. On the one hand, the more popular, business-oriented and less ideological mainstream tabloids still promote the struggle of 'reformasi versus status-quo', terms promoted by the opposition parties PAN, PKB and PDI-P in order to defeat Golkar.
The trouble is that the meaning of reformasi or status quo has never been clearly stated even by the opposition parties. The 'reformist' party with the largest vote, Megawati's PDI-P, has not emphasised opposition to the military's involvement in politics, nor does it clearly support amendments to the constitution or bringing Suharto to justice, all demands of the reformasi movement that brought down Suharto. Besides that, all the supposedly reformist parties (particularly PDI-P) have within them many major ex-New Order figures, not all of whom have a record of opposing Suharto and the New Order.
On the other hand, Tekad and the smaller Islamic tabloids promote a long running and previously 'underground' discourse of 'Islam versus sekular'. At the present time this discourse has the political implication of supporting Habibie as a 'representative of Islam', in distinction to Megawati and the PDI-P who are accused variously of promoting secularism, syncretism, Christianisation or communism.
The problem here is that the word 'Islam' is also in contention. Both Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation Nahdatul Ulama, and Amien Rais, the leader of Muhammadiyah (and of the reformist party PAN) are both 'pro-reformasi' and opposed to Habibie. It is also clear that Megawati's PDI-P received many more Muslim votes than any other party. Many saw the 'Islam vs sekular' discourse as simply promoting the interests of Habibie. In any case, who can really hope to represent 'Islam' when even the representative organisations can not often agree, as shown by the conflict over whether a woman may become president?
Most voters accept the reformasi/ status quo division rather than the Islam/ secular division. But there will be an on-going battle over the meaning of reformasi and the extent of 'openness'. As the tabloids not only 'open up' politics but also publish what is interpreted in Indonesia as 'pornography', protest over the trend has arisen.
Does reformasi mean a more public acceptance of 'Islamic values', or does it mean an acceptance of other supposedly 'western' values besides democracy, human rights, and so on? Or something in between? Or neither? It would be misleading to see this as simply a battle between Islam and a 'western style' reformasi. When the tabloid press depicts the extremes of discourse it is not only chasing sales but is engaged in a process of defining the limits of a post-Suharto field of politics and culture. In following the media principle that negative stories have greater news value, they succeed in 'stretching' the discourse in different and often conflicting directions to see how far it will go. It is no accident that the largest selling tabloids are those that emphasise conflict, use the most sensational language or provide the most graphic photos.
Although New Order press laws are still officially in force, real control seems to be left to the media proprietors themselves, or to the community. In this respect Indonesia is beginning to resemble other democratic countries. It remains to be seen whether the new discourses will serve to maintain that democratic environment or not.
John Olle (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD student at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.