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The Media Dilemma in the 2009 Elections

Username By Barrie | May 5th, 2008 | Comments No Comments

A year before the 2009 election, the Indonesian media community faces a stifling prospect. A clause in the 2008 law on legislative elections states “print mass media (must) provide fair and balanced space and time for election coverage, interviews and campaign ads for election candidates”.

The law further states that the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) or the Press Council (Dewan Pers) will be responsible for monitoring election coverage, broadcasting and campaign ads conducted by broadcasting and print media, as well as for levying sanctions (with notification to the national and provincial election commissions), in the event of violations, which at the far extreme could take the form of recalling a broadcasting or printing license.

Unsurprisingly, the clauses sent a tremor throughout the media community, with the deputy head of the Press Council, Leo Batubara, proclaiming the regulation on election coverage and the threat of license recall as threatening press freedom and defiantly calling for mass media to essentially ignore the controversial clauses. Election commission member Sri Nuryanti further stated that the election commission would not regulate the mass media on election coverage and campaign ads.

Both Vice President Jusuf Kalla (chairman of the Golkar Party) and House of Representatives lawmaker Agus Purnomo (from the PKS faction) reasoned that a “same opportunity” provision is needed in order to ensure fairness in election coverage, while confusingly allowing that the media has the right to determine newsworthiness.

A “loophole” in the law does state that further mechanisms on election coverage, broadcasting, campaign ads and sanctions will be regulated by the regulation on election commissions, in coordination with the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission and the Press Council.

However, what is the consequence of this particular loophole? Both the Press Council and the election commission refuse to acknowledge the controversial clauses that hamper press freedom, while at the same time some political elites, one-and-a-half months after the enactment of the law, took three steps back and publicly reiterated the independence of mass media on election coverage (Kompas, April 4, 2008).

Nonetheless, the provisions in the law established by the House and the government can be understood from a different perspective. On one side, mass media plays an important role. On the other side, mass media is a business institution influenced by big investors. The potential intimacy between politicians or groups with political clout and owners of mass media can threaten the public interest. A particular issue can be downplayed or blown out of proportion depending on hidden agreements between untouchable powerful networks. In developing countries, there is always the concern of the process of establishing public policies being dominated by powerful investors. As a result, there is often desire to separate news coverage with the expression or political views of media owners. Clear separation between news and editorials or opinions help build public trust.

Certainly, mass media holds a strategic position during the general election period. Politicians need the media to effectively communicate to a wider public audience their agendas, visions, missions, platforms, qualifications, etc. The public needs the media to be better informed citizens and thus make reasonable decisions on election day.

Thus, in its role as the middle person, gatekeeper and watchdog, the media can play a role in ensuring a smooth and fair election. In its role in channeling politicians’ messages, it can be trapped in a role of only copy-pasting the agenda and platforms of candidates, with little in-depth analysis. Such on-the-surface reporting is easiest done and can effortlessly accommodate the “same opportunity” provision in the 2008 law by providing equal and balanced space and time for all candidates.

However, to enable voters to make informed choices, the media should not stop at just being the purveyor of information, but to act as the gatekeeper, presenting and analyzing the important points such as comparison of platforms and their solutions to problems, while ignoring the fluffy and irrelevant points.

To effectively perform its public function, the media must have the independence to determine newsworthiness. As stated by David Bartless of the Radio-Television News Directors, the “job of a journalist is not to simply stand back and let the candidates say their piece. If I’m the public, what I’m buying is the experience, the analysis, the skepticism of a competent journalist…. That’s what journalism is. The rest is either publicity or reprinting.”

Thus, what should be done by the media community in Indonesia? The media community has the 1999 law on the press and the 2002 law broadcasting, but now there is the 2008 law on legislative elections with its “equal opportunity” provision.

This serves as a warning to the media community of impending future problems when facing demands to be fair and balanced, which is potentially subjective as each election candidate has his or her own parameters. This also serves as a reminder for the media to be professional and help establish fair elections. A smooth election process, however, demands maturity not only from the media but from all parties, including election candidates and voters. There is a railway track to follow: mutual control toward mature political behavior.

The writer, Sarah A.S. Pramono, is an MA graduate of California State University, Sacramento, and currently working in media and democratization.

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