Challenge to political parody on Indonesian television.
Gus Pur and Megakarti
On 4 March 2007, the Republic of Dreams (Republik Mimpi) ceased to exist, and was replaced by the Kingdom of Dreams (Kerajaan Mimpi). Two weeks later, by decree of Si Butet Yogya in Yaharta, the kingdom reverted to a republic. What could explain these profound constitutional changes in such a short period? What is the Republic, or Kingdom, of Dreams anyway? And who is Si Butet Yogya, and where is Yaharta?
The Republic of Dreams is a fictional country at the centre of a humorous weekly talk show on the commercial television station Metro TV. The show’s title, Newsdotcom, refers to the name of the republic’s news agency. The Republic of Dreams is portrayed as a never-never land (negeri antah-berantah), which is very similar to - and often expresses its concern about - its neighbour, Indonesia. Yaharta is its capital, and its residents include President Si Butet Yoyga (‘SBY’), Vice President Jarwo Kuat (also spelled Kwat), and former presidents Suharta, Habudi, Gus Pur and Megakarti. These characters all have uncanny similarities in name, appearance and speech to their real life Indonesian counterparts, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jusuf Kalla, Suharto, Habibie, Gus Dur and Megawati, respectively. For instance, Gus Pur, one of the most popular characters in the show, has the same seemingly indifferent, down-to-earth attitude as real life Gus Dur, reflected in his preference for using expressions such as ‘As far as I’m concerned, no problem!’ and ‘Why all the fuss over something like that?’
The Republic of Dreams is very similar to its neighbour, Indonesia.
Each Newsdotcom episode starts with the program’s theme song, which urges people to accept that ‘criticism is normal’. After this, the (former) government members and the audience together sing the republic’s national anthem about ‘a country in the clouds, where peace is the palace’. During the show, the presidential advisor offers topics for discussion by providing short summaries of interesting articles from the Indonesian newspapers. The republic’s government members and studio guests then comment on – usually ironically – and debate the news.
Newsdotcom is the latest in a series of political satires screened on Indonesian television since the commercial station Indosiar commenced broadcasting Republik BBM (The Truly Drunken Republic) in December 2005. The creator of both programs, Universitas Indonesia communications scholar Effendi Gazali, explained he was inspired by US current affairs talk shows, such as the Jon Stewart Daily Show, Jay Leno and David Letterman. He considers his programs ‘political education in a humorous package’, intended to ‘educate people to watch the news’. He also wanted to change the Indonesian television paradigm characterised by an abundance of sinetron (soap operas), programs based on superstitions and infotainment.
Although political satire is not new in Indonesian life and arts, what makes productions such as Republik BBM and Newsdotcom different is their medium and format. Unlike the humorous servant-clowns in ketoprak or wayang theatre, or the politically-engaged actors on stage in western-style theatre, these programs do not merely reflect directly or indirectly those in power, but rather function as full-scale, quite literal embodiments of Indonesian political figures, who have been distanced – out of sight and out of touch – from the ordinary citizen for far too long.
Threats to political satire
Probably due to its unusual format, the genre of the satirical television show has had to endure many challenges in its short history. In June 2006 Indosiar discontinued Republik BBM due to corporate and perhaps also political pressure. Disappointed but not deterred by the restrictions, those involved in the program split into two groups, with each group creating their own follow-up program in the same satirical tradition. One group, including the comedians Taufiq Savalas and Denny Chandra, created Istana BBM (The Truly Drunken Palace), a situation comedy about the president’s daily routine at the presidential palace. The second group, including Effendi Gazali and the comedian Kelip Pelipur Lara, created Newsdotcom.
Si Butet Yogya with the Repulik Mimpi team
Newsdotcom has itself recently faced threats. The first threat came on 1 March 2007 when the Minister of Communications and Informatics, Sofyan Djalil, told journalists that he considered issuing a ‘somasi’ (legal notice) against the program, because he did not agree with ’the president being mocked’. A day later, the program’s main sponsor, the cigarette company Sampoerna, announced it would not renew its sponsorship, which had expired at the end of February. Sampoerna declared its intention to focus sponsorship activities on sports and music events. A spokesperson explained that there had been internal agreement on the company’s decision two days earlier, on 28 February, implying it had not been influenced by Djalil’s comments.
As a form of protest against the threats, the Newsdotcom team changed their republic into a monarchy, The Kingdom of Dreams, in the 4 March 2007 episode. While ‘President SBY’ in the Republic of Dreams was a democratically elected and open leader, ‘King SBY’ (still played by the same actor, Butet Kartaredjasa) in the Kingdom of Dreams was portrayed as someone who stood above the law, immune to any criticism. In this creative manner the Newsdotcom team seemed to make a statement on leaders in contemporary Indonesia – that they behaved as kings and could not accept democratic debate. In anticipation of a fierce legal battle, and in an attempt to prompt support from the community, the on-air debates in this and following programs centred heavily on the ministerial threats, the place of Newsdotcom, and the nature of democracy generally.
The 4 March program opened with Si Butet Yogya publicly reading a decree changing the republic into a kingdom. During the episode the new king cynically joked that he preferred living in a kingdom, as ‘everything was comfortable and nice’. Jarwo Kuat, now prime minister instead of vice president, made a ‘plesetan’ (play on words) of his own name, saying he was feeling ‘stronger and stronger’ (semakin kuat) because of the political threats.
Gus Pur applauded Effendi Gazali for never considering a career in politics. He believed that creativity would never die and that ‘many great works had come into being from behind iron bars’. He also thought the Department of Communications and Informatics was of no use, and should be abolished or restricted to purely technological issues, as the public was capable of assessing what they saw. Iwel Wel, stand-up comedian and producer of the program, gave examples of political parody in other countries, arguing that even an ‘arrogant’ George Bush accepted being parodied by actors such as Steve Bridges. Students and fellow journalists in the audience wondered why Newsdotcom was under political threat, while programs that contained nudity, superstition and violence were acceptable.
The Newsdotcom team cited support from politicians, including the ones parodied in the program. In newspaper articles or in person, Gus Dur, Megawati, Habibie and even the Suharto family had all declared they enjoyed the program and did not feel offended by it. During the show, a previously broadcast interview with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s spokesperson, Andi Mallarangeng, was repeated, reminding critics that Indonesia’s president found the program refreshing and constructive, although he did caution the producers to stay within the borders of what was legally acceptable.
... ‘governments which exercise censorship perhaps signal that they will not last much longer.’
Special studio guest Amien Rais, reformasi figure and co-founder of the National Mandate Party (PAN), argued that politicians who could not deal with parody and criticism needed more self-confidence and an understanding that there was always room for improvement. Criticism should therefore be seen as ‘a medicine of strength’. Referring to a similar example of political parody from US television, DC Follies, which was broadcast with few restrictions, Rais believed that ‘governments which exercise censorship perhaps signal that they will not last much longer.’
From left to right: Habudi, Suharta and Gus Pur
The Kingdom of Dreams lasted for two only episodes, reverting to a republic by official decree of King SBY on 18 March. After reading the decree, Si Butet Yogya exchanged his crown for a Muslim cap, and Jarwo Kuat removed his prime ministerial decorations to become vice president again. The symbolic return to a republic was an expression of self-confidence, and another stand against political threat.
The 18 March episode became an even more unique television event when, immediately following the reading of the decree, Sofyan Djalil himself made a guest appearance. In a remarkably open conversation, the government of the Republic of Dreams gave Djalil the opportunity to explain why he had considered taking action against Newsdotcom. Djalil emphasised that he had spoken as a private citizen, not as the Minister of Communications and Informatics. He thought the program set a bad example, ridiculing rather than confirming political and social figures as models for society: ‘If all leadership becomes the object of ridicule … our people will lose their sense of direction.’
In response Gus Pur bravely but humorously disagreed with Djalil. ‘True leadership cannot be mocked. […] Why bother just because of that?’ Djalil was also challenged by a representative of Nahdlatul Ulama (Association of Muslim Scholars) who argued that the issuing of a legal notice against Newsdotcom would be purely political, and questioned why the minister did not focus on programs containing violence and nudity. Djalil responded that he, in cooperation with the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI), would act to ensure violence and nudity would no longer be tolerated on Indonesian television between 6am and 9pm.
By the end of the program the focus of ministerial attention seemed to have shifted. Peace between the Newsdotcom team and Djalil was temporarily restored. But whether this is a temporary reprieve for political parody, or a sign of growing political maturity, only time will tell. Let’s keep on dreaming! ii
Edwin Jurriens (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lecturer in Indonesian language and culture at the University of New South Wales at ADFA, Canberra.