Editions : October-December 2014

JOURNAL | INDONESIA 360 By: Endy M Bayuni

If democratic elections are supposed to produce winners and losers, then the Indonesian media must be counted among the biggest losers of 2014. The highly partisan way that many mainstream broadcast and print outlets covered the general and presidential elections has eroded the trust that the Indonesian public put in the media industry and the profession of journalism, leaving long-term although not necessarily irreparable damage.

The losing political parties in the April 9 legislative elections, as well as losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, will likely pick up the pieces, start playing the opposition role and prepare for the next elections five years down the road. The road to recovery for the media, unfortunately, will be much harder and possibly longer.

By taking sides in 2014, some blatantly and shamelessly, the media shot themselves in the foot. One could argue that this may be generalizing too much since surely some media outlets remained independent in their election reporting. But as far as the public is concerned, that may be irrelevant. The public perception is that the entire Indonesian media took sides. (I am not making a judgment here about my own newspaper’s coverage, and I remain a neutral voice as I no longer have any role in its daily editorial decisions.)

Appalling behavior

This perception was more widely felt or apparent during the July 9 presidential election, which saw a bitter campaign between Prabowo, the former Army general, and Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo that polarized the country. The virtual absence of a middle ground during the election campaign was one strong indication that even the media were divided. Rather than keeping the public space open, major newspapers and television stations helped to drive the nation further apart. This is the sad reality about the current state of affairs. The news media are rapidly losing credibility, and they only have themselves to blame.

The print media are already facing strong financial pressures given falling or stagnant readerships, while broadcast news outlets are feeling the pinch with fierce competition for viewers among themselves and also from digital media. By discarding the principles of good journalism and violating the public trust, they are engaging in a race to the bottom. Unless they change quickly, some of these media outlets are speeding up their own inevitable demise.

The media have played a pivotal role during the last 16 years in transforming Indonesia from an authoritarian state into a democracy. Journalists working for major newspapers and television stations have wholeheartedly embraced the role as the fourth pillar of democracy, keeping the country’s power holders – the executive, legislative and judiciary branches – more accountable and pushing for greater transparency in government. They also helped voters make up their minds in general elections in 1999, 2004 and 2009, and we can safely claim that the results were based on informed choices. The 2014 elections were still democratic and voters were aware of their choices, but we could hardly attribute this to the mainstream media when the majority of them engaged, directly or indirectly, in the election campaigns.

While the appalling behavior of the mainstream media in these elections has jeopardized their contribution to the process of nation building, it has not necessarily undermined Indonesia’s democracy. The new media platforms provided by the Internet, including social media, have taken up the slack. The nation’s bloggers and citizen journalists may not practice the trade as we have known it or have the discipline of professional journalists, but there are enough of them in cyberspace to offer alternative news and information that the public can no longer reliably find in newspapers or on television. The public was well informed, or even better informed, throughout the 2014 election season thanks to these new players.

The losses sustained by big media outlets for taking sides will be borne entirely by them. Indonesia’s democracy is not at great peril with the declining role of the traditional media, as sad as it may seem. Thanks to the growth of the Internet, the nation is marching on.

The road to recovery – or even survival – for these big media outlets, begins with returning to the basics of good journalism that they so easily discarded in reporting this year’s elections. They need to rebuild their credibility. It took many of these media outlets years – some even decades – to earn the public’s trust and to get where they are today. Many have grown into successful conglomerates and diversified into all kinds of media platforms, including expanding into the Internet. They should remember that most of them got where they are by practicing good journalism, which gradually but surely built public trust.

Editors who run the big media outlets should know that good journalism means good business, and conversely, bad journalism is bad for business, and convey this to their tycoon owners so they stop the blatant meddling that was so apparent during the 2014 elections. Any short-term political benefits that media moguls may have gained through their interventions were not worth the game. They only undermined the credibility of their news outlets and the long-term viability of their media enterprises.

Public trust and rapid change

Few professions are considered institutions of public trust. Journalism is one of them. Bankers and medical doctors are other examples. People trust banks for the safekeeping of their money and put their lives in the hands of the medical profession. People read newspapers and watch TV news because they have put a certain trust in media outlets and journalists to keep them truly informed.

Journalism as a trusted institution is a 20th century phenomena as newspapers, radio and later television made news and information available to the masses at little or no cost, and in a timely fashion. After the initial rises and falls of the industry, newspapers in democratic nations began to establish themselves as credible and trustworthy public institutions midway through the century by helping to keep the public well informed.

The newspaper industry, and the journalism profession behind it, grew and expanded because it earned the public’s trust. The industry developed an effective, profitable and unique business model that relied chiefly on advertising income to keep operations running and the cost to readers as low as possible. Television, a relative newcomer to the news and information business, uses the same model of depending on ad revenue. A public trust institution financed by corporate advertising first seemed like a novelty, but it became the standard in the news industry and was replicated around the world.

It is no coincidence that many of the longest-running newspapers in the world are the ones that have practiced good journalism to nurture public trust. These include The New York Times and The Washington Post in the United States, The Guardian in Britain, Le Monde in France, El Pais in Spain and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Germany. In Indonesia, Kompas counts as one of the oldest national newspapers, debuting back in 1964, and it is definitely the largest and financially the most successful. Tempo magazine is the country’s oldest newsweekly. A closer look at the history of all these publications tells you that they didn’t get where they are today without first building credibility in the public eye. The lesson is clear: good journalism means good business.

Television is a more recent phenomenon, but it has a much wider and deeper reach than newspapers. Most TV networks have news divisions, but this is usually just one part of a larger operation that is led by entertainment programs. Like newspapers, news programs must have credibility to win public trust, and thus television journalism also developed. Today, we have all-news channels that provide news and information around the clock. Metro TV, TV One and newcomer BeritaSatu are Indonesia’s answer to CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera.

The Internet revolution brought many more new players into the news and information industry. Anyone with a computer and Internet access can now disseminate information just as effectively, and sometimes faster, as journalists working for traditional media platforms. Bloggers and citizen journalists now compete head to head with traditional journalists in producing news and information. They are not subject to the same rules of good journalism practices and ethics, so there may be questions about their credibility, yet they are vying for the attention and time of the same audience. The more successful bloggers and citizen journalists have built a name and reputation because they have credibility by observing the rules of good journalism.

Credibility, therefore, remains a critical factor in determining success in the news business, whether on traditional or new media platforms. Public trust is still the chief currency in the news industry and the journalism profession. You build credibility by practicing good journalism that includes ensuring accuracy through a tight verification process, staying neutral or objective – or at least fair – and having the ability to package information in concise and comprehensive ways.

Indonesia’s media industry has undergone major changes since the start of the millennium, thanks to two factors. First, the political reforms in the post-Soeharto era that saw the end of state censorship and control. Second, Internet technology, which brought many new players into the business, and saw to it that print publishers and broadcasters no longer had exclusive control over the flow of information.

But something else happened: the “conglomeratization” of the media industry, particularly print and broadcasting. In 2012, Merlyna Lim, the noted Indonesian information and communications studies researcher, produced a widely circulated diagram showing the growing concentration of Indonesian media in the hands of only 13 business groups. Old players such as the Jawa Pos Group, Kompas Gramedia Group and Media Indonesia Group were joined by relative newcomers with very deep pockets, such as Media Nusantara Citra (MNC) Group, the Bakrie Group and the Lippo Group.

Media observers warned about the consequences of the concentration of ownership on the flow of news and information, including its impact on democracy. They cautioned media outlets about compromising editorial integrity and independence to accommodate the business or political interests of large media groups or their owners.

The warnings presaged the shameless way some media outlets covered the 2014 elections.

Shooting themselves in the foot

Indonesians will look back at 2014 as the year the media turned for the worse. The election coverage by some of the big media outlets was a sham, and they dishonored the entire media industry and the journalism profession.

Some of these supposedly respected media outlets became nothing more than campaign tools for political parties run by their owners, and later for the presidential candidate the owners supported. Others openly took sides, giving positive coverage for one presidential candidate but negative coverage for the other; in the worst cases they engaged in smear campaigns against a candidate.

Obor Rakyat, the controversial tabloid that appeared out of nowhere during the presidential campaign, epitomizes what is wrong with a media free of any form of restraint. The obscure tabloid published several editions with outright lies about Joko – that he was not a Muslim, that he came from an ethnic Chinese family and that he was a Communist. The smears cleverly targeted underlying ethnic and religious tensions and voter fears. And when the stories were reproduced within social media and went viral, many more voters were influenced by the claims.

Obor Rakyat was set up for the sole purpose of attacking Joko’s candidacy through outright lies. It has no pretension of practicing good journalism – or any journalism at all. It was a hit-and-run publication.

Large media outlets, in particular television channels such as TV One and MNC that supported Prabowo, and Metro TV, which supported Joko, are established operators that hardy fit the description of hit-and-run establishments. Yet they risked their reputations by allowing themselves to be fully used to serve the political interests of their owners. Other news outlets, including some of the more established publications, did not necessarily spread lies, but went overboard with negative coverage of one candidate or the other, raising questions about their professed neutrality and fairness.

It is unclear how much the lies, deceptions and smear campaigns affected the outcome of the election, but Prabowo did manage to all but eliminate the huge lead in public opinion polls that Joko held at the start of the official campaign period in early June. And rather than ceasing and desisting after Election Day, some media outlets continued to be cheerleaders for their chosen candidates when it became clear that Prabowo had lost and would undoubtedly appeal to the Constitutional Court. In various informal conversations, the senior editors of these news outlets denied that they compromised their integrity, insisting they acted within acceptable boundaries. They will likely go unpunished by independent watchdog organizations such as the Press Council and the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission, which were tasked with monitoring their behavior. They can claim they didn’t violate the nation’s press and broadcasting laws or the criminal code pertaining to defamation, and as well as not to have violated any ethical codes.

After all, no one has filed a formal complaint against them with the appropriate institutions. The lone exception is the ongoing police investigation against Obor Rakyat and the people behind it for allegedly defaming Joko, and that came only after strong public pressure. All the others walk away scot-free, or so they think. But the public can and should punish the media for poor and shoddy journalism. Many people have already come out and said they have boycotted particular television channels, in particular the all-news stations, in response to the election coverage. With most Indonesians having more than 10 free-to-air channels to choose from, and over 100 channels for cable subscribers, viewers can easily boycott them at the click of a remote control.

Newspapers may have also lost some credibility and therefore will lose even more readership, which is already on the downward trend as younger audiences prefer digital media. Many newspaper editors have conveniently blamed the competition from the Internet for falling or stagnant newspaper readership, but one should not discount the erosion of credibility. The market will likely punish the media for violating the public trust, just as it helped some of these media outlets grow and prosper in the first place. This may not be seen immediately in their bottom lines – certainly not this year. Many media outlets profited handsomely from massive spending on political advertisements during this election year. The damage will only become apparent in the medium and long term through indicators such as television ratings and circulation for print publications, and eventually if not inevitably, in their bottom lines one or two years from now.

They have no one but themselves to blame.

Can we get back to business?

If the 2014 elections become a turning point for the media in Indonesia, it begs the question of how the major outlets allowed themselves to stray from their sacred role as the fourth pillar of democracy. How can they recover from what must be a huge setback for both the media industry and the journalism profession?

This did not happen in the previous general and presidential elections since 1999. Some media outlets were already under the control of big political parties, including Metro TV and TV One, but they were not seen then as campaign tools of the parties or presidential candidates.

If anything, previous elections showed that ownership of media outlets does not guarantee victory. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was twice elected president without owning a television station or having to even rely on supportive media outlets to help his campaign. This, however, did not stop ambitious politicians and businessmen from using their media companies to bolster their election campaigns in 2014. Golkar, controlled by Aburizal Bakrie, used his TV One to attempt to influence voters to support both his party and his own unsuccessful presidential ambitions. Surya Paloh, who controls Metro TV, did the same thing to help his fledgling National Democratic Party (Nasdem), while Wiranto’s People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) enjoyed media support from the MNC Group under Hary Tanoesoedibjo, who was chosen as the party’s presumptive vice presidential candidate. (MNC later switched allegiance to Prabowo. Hanura joined Joko’s coalition.)

The impact of media ownership on election outcomes in 2014 is sketchy. Nasdem made an impressive election debut, winning nearly 7 percent of the vote with the support of Metro TV. Golkar, with TV One backing it, saw its vote total remain basically stagnant compared to 2009, at around 14 percent, while Hanura gained more votes compared to five years ago with some apparent help from MNC’s television channels, but it still was last among the 10 parties that won seats in the House of Representatives. It is hard to ascertain from the April legislative elections that controlling big media outlets means more votes, even as owners steered news coverage to sway voters. Many other factors must have been at play.

It was a different story with the July presidential race, which unlike in years past had only two candidates. Voters quickly became polarized, helped along by an increasingly partisan media. It was just as well that Nasdem joined the Joko coalition and brought Metro TV to his side because it leveled the media playing field. What would have happened if all the big television outlets had supported Prabowo and campaigned aggressively against Joko?

Irrespective of whether media ownership is pivotal in winning elections, once the election period is over and the winners are known, the tycoons and those who manage their outlets will have to deal with issues of credibility and public trust, and most likely fewer viewers and readers. They will have to lick the wounds for taking sides, some more blatantly than others. Going by the current public sentiment, it is clear that the entire media industry has suffered a black eye.

The most tragic part of the story, of course, is that the journalism profession has suffered the most, and this may have consequences on the quality of Indonesia’s democracy going forward. The public will seriously question the ability of journalists to keep those in power accountable. When journalists are perceived as tools of a political campaign, disseminating propaganda or attacking other candidates, it is hard for the public to give trust even if things go back to normal once the election cycle is over. As in any relationship, once you have betrayed trust, it will be difficult to convince a partner that you won’t do it again. It is even more difficult now that the partner, in this case the public, have other alternatives to turn to for credible news and information: the new media platforms provided by the Internet.

Get it together

It is now really up to Indonesia’s journalists to get themselves out of this predicament. The nation has given them guarantees of press freedom since 1998, and today the country can boast of having the freest atmosphere in Asia for the media to operate. That freedom did not come without conditions attached, one of which is that journalists should use it responsibly. Freed from any form of state control, the Indonesian media has basically operated under a self-regulating mechanism with independent watchdog organizations such as the Press Council and Indonesian Broadcasting Commission, as well as various professional journalist organizations, monitoring their behavior and ethics.

This mechanism failed this year and did not stop journalists working for major media outlets from throwing the principles of good journalism and ethics out the window. They made a mockery of the certification system that the Press Council and various professional organizations launched in 2012 to ascertain the competence of journalists. Many of the first holders of the Primary Press Card, the local journalistic equivalent of a platinum credit card that was given to Indonesia’s most senior journalists and editors, were the ones who turned themselves into campaign tools.

Looking ahead, the battle that we should all be concerned about is the one taking place inside almost all newsrooms between editors and media owners. This is a perennial battle, and not just in Indonesia, as owners are tempted to use their outlets to promote their businesses and political interests. In 2014, it appears the owners prevailed as their editors and news directors bowed to their wishes.

It is not that they didn’t realize the danger they were facing, given the growing intrusions of owners, something that inevitably comes with the concentration of media ownership. In 2012, 55 editors from the country’s major broadcast, print and online media companies created the Forum of Chief Editors. One of their stated missions is to promote editorial independence by extending help and solidarity to any member who comes under pressure from ownership. Yet nothing was heard of the forum since its founding, aside from a big party it held at a five-star hotel Bali in June 2013 that was controversially sponsored by a number of large corporations. In 2014, many of these senior editors enjoyed anything but editorial independence and practiced the worst kind of journalism.

Indonesia will likely never digress back to the era of state control over the media, regardless of who is president. Freedom of speech and the press are here to stay. The country will inevitably have its share of tainted journalism in such an open, free environment, but it needs to make sure that the vast majority of news reporting is fair and balanced. In 1960, Albert Camus, the famed French-Algerian reporter and philosopher, wrote: “A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.” Sadly, in 2014, there seems to be far more bad press in Indonesia than good. Let’s hope we have all learned a lesson and can get back to the serious business of good journalism.

 

Endy Bayuni is senior editor of The Jakarta Post.

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