Owners exert their sway in Indonesian newsrooms, but journalists soldier on
News readers aren’t always seeing the whole story
Eric Setiawan (Flickr)
About a year after the 1997 financial crisis began hitting Indonesia, a reader called the office of the business weekly where I worked as finance editor to complain about my cover story on Indonesia’s troubled banking sector. A private bank that he knew was performing badly was not on the story’s list of banks due to collapse, and he wasn’t happy about the omission. There was, however, a reason the bank was not on the list: the owner of the troubled bank happened to hold a majority share in the magazine.
While the example is an extreme one, conflicts of interest are not uncommon in Indonesia’s media and have not disappeared in the post-Suharto era. Indeed, news organisations owned by conglomerates in Indonesia have a history of being compromised by the non-media interests of their owners.
The media landscape
The ownership structure of news organisations in Indonesia varies. While some are wholly owned by traditional proprietors, others are owned by highly diversified conglomerates. Some of these conglomerates have disparate non-media businesses, ranging from financial services, like banking and insurance, to hotels and real estate. According to its 2006 company profile, the Kompas-Gramedia Group (owner of the daily Kompas) provides not only an ‘integrated media strategy’ though its television and radio stations, newspapers, magazines, online media, exhibition organising and bookstores, but also a chain of hotels (Santika Group) and a tissue business (PT Graha Kerindo Utama). The company was also reportedly invited to invest in toll-road projects. The Jawa Pos Group, owner of the Jawa Pos newspaper, has been exploring oil business opportunities in East Java. The group has built a second power plant with a local company in East Kalimantan, after its first power plant venture in Gresik.
The ownership can be dizzyingly complex. For example, PT Aksara Solopos, the company that publishes SoloPos, is majority-owned by PT Jurnalindo Aksara Grafika, which also publishes Bisnis Indonesia. PT Jurnalindo is in turn collectively owned by the Sahid Group, Ciputra Group, Salim Group and Tempo Group, most of which have stakes in non-media businesses.
The three flagship dailies of Indonesia – Pikiran Rakyat, Kompas, and Suara Merdeka – are directly owned by individuals or families and therefore directly controlled by their owners. Jakarta Post and Solo Pos belong to business groups which are owned by larger conglomerates.
In order to reveal how likely conflicts of interest are in news organisations, I conducted a confidential survey of Indonesian journalists in the country’s capital and four major cities. Those working for the presses in Jakarta, Bandung, Semarang, Solo and Surabaya were asked to complete a survey questionnaire in English accompanied by an Indonesian translation.
Altogether 82 professional journalists at six newspapers responded. Some of them have been working for their news organisations – among them the Jakarta Post, Bandung’s Pikiran Rakyat and the Semarang-based Suara Merdeka – for over 15 years.
Conflicts of interest are not uncommon in Indonesia’s media and have not disappeared in the post-Suharto era
The results of the survey make it clear that common business practices in the Indonesian press contradict the assumption held by Western liberal theorists that there can be an effective separation between ownership and control of editorial decisions. The survey finds that where a particular newspaper ends up on the editorial policy continuum – from a position of total control of the editorial line by the newspaper’s owners to absolute independence by the editors – has a lot to do with the ownership structure of that newspaper.
The myth of editorial independence
Results of the survey reveal that sole owners of newspapers are more likely to exert their ownership power, while newspapers with diffuse ownership (or shares floated on the stock market) are less likely to feel their owners’ will directly. It appears that the more people who own a share of a news organisation, the more editorially independent its journalists are.
Of the journalists surveyed, 80 per cent of those working in news organisations with direct ownership believe that owners control editorial decisions, compared to 20 per cent of those in news organisations with indirect ownership. An astonishing 76 per cent of the journalists surveyed state that they have experienced owners’ interference into editorial policy at least once. The interference by owners happens to journalists at both small and large companies.
82 per cent of the journalists believe that conflicts of interest are very likely to occur in their respective news organisations. The only exception was journalists at the Jakarta Post. This exception can perhaps be attributed to the paper’s ownership: there are tens of owners of this relatively small press enterprise, including a consortium of media conglomerates. With such a diffuse ownership structure, it is hard for any single owner to throw his or her weight around.
Journalists at Pikiran Rakyat, a leading daily based in Bandung, reported more owner interference into editorial policy than any of the other news organisations. This seems to be explained by its history: Pikiran Rakyat was formerly affiliated with the Jakarta-based daily Angkatan Bersenjata (Armed Forces) newspaper and served as the West Java edition of the paper owned by the Indonesian army. The newspaper is known to have close connections to the Golkar Party.
Indonesian newspapers are very hierarchical organisations. In a typical Indonesian news organisation, the owner usually takes the position of publisher, sitting at the top, followed by the editor-in-chief. The survey finds that 71 per cent of the journalists say decisions about content might be changed because of the owner’s influence, even when the owner seldom attends editorial meetings. 95 per cent of the journalists believe that content is significantly altered in accordance with their organisation’s commercial interests.
Owners will not necessarily intervene directly with the journalist, but rather get stories altered by the editorial department under their instruction or that of the management. The interference might also take the form of ‘guidance’ or an informal ‘instruction’ to toe the political line. Owners may have the final say in deciding which stories written by their journalists can appear.
The media’s role as watchdog becomes problematic when it clashes with the interests of those who own and control the newsrooms
Journalists may see their stories significantly altered for the sake of owners. I once found my article and whole cover story dramatically changed in favour of a former minister under Suharto, who happened to be a crony of the owner of my business daily. The mainstream media, however, carried unfavourable news coverage about the same minister. The owner was known to benefit from contracts directed to his non-media companies by the minister.
Reactions of journalists to interference varied. Some perhaps naturally expressed anger and disappointment. Only in extreme cases of heavy-handed intervention by owners did journalists resign, as I myself did in response to unbearable interference by the owner.
One editor-in-chief wasn’t fazed by the meddling: ‘If the owner interferes, so what?’ he said, adding that it may be good for the business. Other chief editors, however, stressed the importance of being editorially independent. As greatly as a separation between ownership and management of news organisations matters, so does a separation between editorial policy and commercial interests, or as Endy M Bayuni of the Jakarta Post puts it, ‘a wall built separating the editorial from the commercial department’.
Despite the near-universal experience of editorial interference, reporters still place trust in their newspapers. Almost 80 per cent think that impartial information and news reporting are very important to their news organisations. And 94 per cent of them say their news organisations encourage them to prioritise the interest of the public.
The sleeping watchdog
The task of the journalist is to criticise and investigate. The question is: how can a journalist be a good critic of a troubled business when he or she works for a press enterprise owned by the same group of companies? The media’s role as watchdog of government and big business becomes problematic when it clashes with the vested interests of those who own and control the newsrooms.
In the Suharto era, Indonesians could not rely on their media to disclose the corrupt practices of an authoritarian regime when the media were under the influence of the government. The country’s media did not monitor properly big businesses during the financial turmoil that hit the country’s banking industry in the late 1990s. And nowadays, the people cannot expect independent reportage by their media, especially on business matters, when conflicts of interest occur between the media and non-media arms of conglomerates.
When the actions of big business or the government affect the public, only a media free from commercial and political interests can act on behalf of the country’s people. ii
Hendrarto Darudoyo (email@example.com) is a PhD candidate in media studies at La Trobe University, a business journalist, and a lecturer in media and communications at several private universities in Jakarta.