Just before an election, Habibie finds the temptation to buy himself a TV network too hard to resist.
Ishadi S K
On 23 November 1998, Tempo news weekly reported that a group around President Habibie tried to take over the private television network SCTV.
Television and radio have become crucial campaigning media, especially during the ‘reformasi’ that began in March and reached its peak with the end of the New Order on 21 May 1998. Television coverage, first by the private stations, then also by state television TVRI, made a strong contribution to the reformation process.
Its ownership structure suggested that television should have remained under the control of the New Order in those days. But it’s interesting that in practice this did not substantially influence broadcasting policy and the packaging of news. Probably the energy of the students, and the economic and political atmosphere generally, forced television to move beyond the control of its owners. The professionalism of the broadcasters, most of them idealistic young graduates from the newsprint industry, demonstrated a modern, competitive, open, intelligent style of television journalism. Viewers - bored with the slow, monotonous and biassed style of TVRI pre-reformation - lapped it up. Private television (followed by TVRI from early May) became a medium close to the spirit of reformation and democracy.
Media observers Golding and Murdock once said that television cannot be understood in isolation from its political and economic environment. This idea reinforced an earlier theory of ‘agenda setting’, in which the media play a huge role in selecting who and what is presented to society as news. The economic environment includes ownership and advertising. Since business everywhere is close to the political elite, the economic and political structure influences programming and news reporting.
The Tempo news item about Habibie then fits quite well with this concept of Golding and Murdock. A political elite who want to make use of the media will try to control it through its finances.
Now is a great opportunity for any political elite to take over the media. First, because all television stations desperately need fresh money to survive. Second, because the government, in particular the Information Minister, is busy bringing about ‘reformasi’ in the media. Cleaning up television stations whose ownership is tainted with corruption and collusion is certainly on his agenda.
Third, private television has become extremely popular and was before the financial crisis among the most profitable business sectors. Rather than establish a new network, which will take time to show a profit, much the best way is to acquire an existing one. Especially just before the 1999 elections.
The very real question now is, does this Habibie move not simply plunge Indonesian television back into the New Order? How can television ever become a neutral medium, free from political bias, a source of even-handed information for all? Perhaps it’s no more than a philosophical question, a utopian one. Even in the United States, where freedom is guaranteed under the First Amendment, the press is dominated by barons close to those in power.
Actually, if Tempo was correct in reporting that Habibie’s group had taken over SCTV (and Indosiar, another private network) merely for political reasons, it hardly makes sense. It would be so much easier to just use TVRI, which is after all government-owned. If the problem is that no one watches it, reform it into an effective source of news! If TVRI presented news in a more realistic way and didn’t go overboard in its partiality, it could become a compelling campaign tool.
Anyway, the experience of reformasi earlier in 1998 proved that a combination of enthusiastic students as a pressure group and the professionalism of television broadcasters can actually neutralise the power of the owners. Television must always belong to the public, a medium for everyone. Because it must use a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is a limited resource within the public domain. But also because television is such an important medium to teach the people democracy and to keep an eye on government.
Haven’t we all vowed never to repeat the wrongs of the last 32 years? Once we realise that I think that anyone who still tries to acquire a private television network in these times is merely ‘taking over’ something that was born in the sins of the New Order.
Ishadi SK is a senior broadcasting executive with a reputation for promoting an independent mass media. He was appointed Director-General of Radio, Television and Film in the ‘reformasi’ Information Ministry in May 1998, but lost his job five months later for unclear reasons. ‘There is a bureaucratic environment that still will not face reality’, he said at the time.