The announcement that Radio Australia was slashing its foreign broadcasts from July 1997 came like a bolt out of the blue for many Indonesians. A disaster! Access to accurate information about their own country and about the world at large had shrunk once more. It had already been shrinking steadily since the banning of Tempo, DeTIK and Editor on 21 June 1994. In the event, the Indonesian service survived, but only just - its transmission hours and staff have been halved. Indonesians today cannot trust the official news. Repression against journalists and the mass media has coincided with outbreaks of rioting around Indonesia. That is why Indonesians rely on foreign radio broadcasts. Three are the most important sources of information: Radio Australia, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Radio Netherlands. Since October 1996 these have been complemented by the German service Deutsche Welle, which now broadcasts 100 minutes a day. Evidence of their popularity: the book 'Banning in the Air', published by Goenawan Mohamad's Institute for the Free Flow of Information (ISAI) is selling like hot cakes. The book collects together Radio Australia, BBC, and Radio Netherlands broadcasts around the theme of press bans.
In the red
Radio Australia's millions of Indonesian listeners find it difficult to accept the given reason for cutting Radio Australia's budget by two thirds, namely that Prime Minister John Howard's national budget is AU$8 billion in the red. Over the decades, so many young people have grown used to listening to its broadcasts on their parents' ancient radio set. They never once heard there was any problem with this radio station, which always covered Asia and the Pacific so sympathetically. Now suddenly the news is that financial management at the radio, which has been transmitting since 1939 and is known as a window on the world, was inadequate. What lies behind the savage budget-slashing at this radio station, which may altogether have as many as 20 million listeners? The French, Thai and Cantonese services were closed completely. Mandarin, Khmer, Vietnamese, Pijin, English and Indonesian survive on reduced hours. After threatening Radio Australia's complete closure, the government early May relented and said it had found about $8.5 million in kitty, just over a third of the original budget. Was the Australian government ignoring the importance of its neighbouring country of 200 million by threatening to close the Indonesian service? While foreign television broadcasters queued to get in, why was Radio Australia getting out? Wasn't Radio Australia considered the CNN of radio?
Several Indonesians believe there was another agenda behind the slashed Radio Australia funding. 'Determining a budget is a political matter', says Goenawan Mohamad, former editor of Tempo magazine. Other analysts say slashing Radio Australia not only harms the Indonesian people, but also the Australian government itself. 'It is killing off Australian diplomacy in the Asian region', said one. Many believe that Prime Minister John Howard, who has never felt close to Asia, was the main instigator behind the slash. Some speculate Howard did not like the political line Radio Australia often takes. He thinks it leans towards the opposition Labor Party. Other indications suggest Howard wants a better relationship with Asian governments, including the Indonesian government, and that he wanted Radio Australia closed because its broadcasts often embarrass officials.
Closing down a foreign broadcast for political reasons but under the guise of financial efficiency is not a new idea. In 1995 the same thing nearly happened to Radio Netherlands. That threat was only averted when thousands of listeners protested. Even prominent Indonesians, including Bishop Belo in East Timor, sent letters of protest to Hilversum in the Netherlands. Actually, no one seems to know the real reason behind the threatened closure of Radio Netherland's Indonesian service. Nor whether the flood of protest became a real consideration in its reprieve. Yet surely Radio Australia's Indonesian service did not speak loudly enough about the shutdown plans. Even though it did not invite a listener response the way Radio Netherlands did, thousands of Indonesian listeners sent in letters.
Slashing Radio Australia, including the Indonesian section, will rob millions of independent and trustworthy information. The quality of people-to-people relations could nosedive. Some Asia-Pacific peoples will fall further behind in their struggle for democracy in their own country. And of course, some governments considered anti-democratic by their people will smile with pleasure. Military regimes in the Asian region will now more easily keep oppositions under control.
Stanley is a journalist and author in Jakarta.