On the banks of the remote Sampit River in the forests of Central Kalimantan float the log houses of the indigenous Dayak people. Upon these houses sit 'parabola', satellite dishes capable of picking up not only Indonesia's five domestic television stations but also programming from around the world, including Rupert Murdoch's Hong Kong-based Star TV and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's ATVI.
The penetration of satellite television is part of the Information Revolution. Such technological innovations have changed the patterns of information access and control across the globe. The most potent of them is perhaps the Internet, neither owned nor controlled by any one, and allowing direct, instant communication between an estimated 30 million people around the world.
The world now has an interconnectivity unparalleled in human history. Globalisation has been made possible largely by the spread of information technology. Individual governments have less control over the economic life of their country than do financial markets and multinational corporations. The same is true of communications. According to John Naisbett, the paradox of the information age is that the larger the global economic and communication system becomes, the more powerful will become the individual, thus undermining the strength and legitimacy of the nation-state.
For Indonesia information technology is a double-edged sword. On one side it has allowed the nation to leapfrog into the technological age, helping it to become one of the latest 'tigers' of East Asia. On the other, it threatens (or promises) to open Indonesians to a vast amount of information, much of which its media-sensitive government would prefer they didn't have access to. Arguably the most potent symbol of this dilemma is the Palapa satellite system.
Launched in 1976, the first Palapa satellite made Indonesia only the third country in the world to own a satellite. Initially designed to improve infrastructure, Palapa has produced substantial economic and educational benefits. In a country with over 300 ethnic groups spread over some 17 000 islands, it has helped create a sense of national identity. Palapa has been described as the 'infrastructure of infrastructures', as it forms the backbone of its telecommunications and television broadcasting industries. Through the access it allows to international satellite television, Palapa has also opened the Indonesian people to information over which the government has little control.
Open sky TV
The declaration of an 'open sky' broadcasting policy, allowing the unfettered transmission of information into Indonesian airspace, recognises the inevitability of globalised information. This policy is in large part a flow-on from the Palapa system.
Since 1988 five privately owned national television broadcasters have been allowed to go to air in competition with the previously monopolistic government-owned broadcaster TVRI. According to the Indonesian government's official handbook, these broadcasters have been allowed to go to air 'in order to compensate for the foreign television broadcasting' transmitted courtesy of the Palapa satellite.
Recognition that the globalisation of information is inevitable does not mean that the Suharto regime has surrendered its control over communications structures. Elsewhere, globalisation has seen the transfer of economic and communications systems from governments to private corporations. So too in Indonesia. Only there the private companies belong to those within the regime.
As Philip Kitley has argued, the primary reason for the privatisation of broadcasting was that the state could protect its interests that way. The best way 'to domesticate the global, to make it familiar and to tame its excesses' was for the government to enter into 'co-operative arrangements with a limited segment of the corporate sector' that had close connections with the regime.
Indonesia's nascent commercial television is only now about to be regulated by a Broadcasting Act. Till now, it has operated under a series of decrees from the Ministry of Information, currently headed by one of President Suharto's closest associates, Harmoko. As an article in Inside Indonesia put it (March 1995), Harmoko himself has been successful in expanding into ownership of several media outlets, 'not because of any particularly sharp business acumen' but as 'a consequence of his control and authority in the world of mass media in Indonesia'.
Whilst Indonesia's information technology structures may be moving out of the control of government, they are not moving outside of the Suharto regime. The Palapa satellite is perhaps the most significant example of this phenomenon.
Palapa was launched under the control of the government's telecommunications agency Perumtel. Today it is controlled by a private company, Satelindo. Its majority shareholder is Bimantara. One of Indonesia's biggest companies, Bimantara is owned by President Suharto's eldest son, Bambang Trihatmodjo. In early 1993 the Palapa satellite network, the most profitable Indonesian state- owned business, was, as Adam Schwarz put it, 'transferred' from Perumtel to Satelindo.
Bambang Trihatmodjo is not the only member of the Suharto family to be given control of information structures. His eldest sister controls the magazine Wanita Indonesia and the television broadcaster TPI. Bambang's control extends well beyond Palapa. Through links to the media group Surya Persindo, he is moving into the print media. More significantly, he part-owns the nation's two most successful commercial television broadcasters, RCTI and SCTV. Like all other national broadcasters in Indonesia, these transmit via the Palapa satellite, controlled by his company Satelindo.
He also controls the nation's largest satellite television provider, Indovision. This distributes both Rupert Murdoch's Star TV and its competitor in Indonesia, a consortium of US cable companies that includes Ted Turner's CNN.
Bambang's control of Indonesia's information structures does not end there. Bimantara has also moved into mobile telephones. There are two main mobile telephone systems in the world, the US-based analogue system AMPS, and the European-developed digital system GSM. Indonesia presently has both, and both are controlled by Bambang. Mobile telephony is attractive in cities still plagued by the inefficiencies of the wire-based system.
Recent dramatic improvements in the telephone system have paved the way for the penetration of potentially the most anarchic innovation of the Information Revolution, the Internet.
The Internet in Indonesia is very much in its infancy, and statistics are difficult to obtain. Some sources estimate there may now be 20 000 Internet accounts in Indonesia, triple the number in April last year, with many more users than accounts. There are now at least 22 Internet service providers, though only seven are really professional. New providers are springing up all the time.
When in mid-1995 I spoke to Budi Rahardjo, one of the founders of the group Paguyuban that introduced the Internet to Indonesia, he said the government didn't seem to appreciate the potential of the Internet, and this gave it freedom. But by the end of that year the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Tourism, Post and Telecommunications, Jonathan Parapak was warning that the government would not tolerate the Internet being used by 'irresponsible people' to spread 'misleading information'.
Armed forces spokesman Brig-Gen Suwarno Adiwijoyo suggested the Ministry of Information should register all Internet users and set up a 'tollgate' to 'black out' damaging news. A military Internet team has opened a homepage on the World Wide Web to counter 'bad or wrong information about Abri', and gather intelligence through the Net.
Though this may not bode well for the development of the Internet as a free forum for ideas, a special meeting of ASEAN Information Ministers in Singapore in March to consider the Internet became a counter-indication. It could not agree on practical measures to regulate the Net. Harmoko came home saying 'the flow of information cannot be checked', and said he had no objections to the Internet version of the news magazine he had banned two years earlier, Tempo.
So, despite the best laid plans, globalisation may yet overwhelm the regime and complete the integration of Indonesia's communications systems into the international system. Those officials most concerned to keep control over information have also been selling Indonesia's communications assets to foreign investors.
For the technocrats within the regime, the selling of state owned assets is about raising funds to service the government's US$100 billion foreign debt. The 1995 partial float of PT Telkom raised close to US$2 billion. For others, the sale of assets is as much about gaining legitimacy. As Bimantara was securing a substantial part of Indonesia's emerging information structures, it was floated on the international stock market. In April 1995, 25% of Satelindo was sold to the German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom.
Such sell-offs remove Bimantara from its close association with the apparatus of Indonesian state, which might become a liability in the future. Bambang acknowledged this in May 1995 when he said that 'for some time there have been negative voices against Bimantara. By going public we automatically have to become transparent'.
By going public he also threatens to undermine an intended result of his being given access to so many of Indonesia's opportunities in the first place - to maintain the government's control over information systems. In the long run it may affect the ability of the regime to control Indonesia's future in the Information Age.
Mark Crawford is a journalist with ABC Radio in Orange, New South Wales. This article is based on research he conducted at the University of Sydney.