The interdependent relationship between democracy and a free press is central to reflecting the voice of the people. The freedom of the press is thus an essential component of a free state as has been witnessed in many societies throughout history.
Indonesia’s growing stature as a fully-fledged democracy has been significantly aided by the explosion of the mass media over the past decade. Indeed, the country today enjoys arguably the greatest press freedoms in the region with a cacophony of voices dominating the airwaves and the printing press.
The mass media is playing an increasingly influential role in society. With the proliferation of newspapers, television stations and magazines, Indonesians today enjoy round-the-clock news and information. In recent years, with the rise of social media groups, the power to effect change has risen exponentially. For every big issue – especially regarding corruption, human rights, social justice and governance – netizens take to social networks, personal blogs and websites to voice their views and put pressure on public officials.
In a recent speech, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono referred explicitly to growing public interest and media attention over the standoff between the police and the anti-corruption agency as a factor which led him to speak on the issue. This clearly shows that the mass media is now a force for change in the country.
In such an environment, public officials must now take into account the power of social media to affect public sentiment when deliberating policy. Politicians also have to cater to and adjust their actions to ensure there will be no public backlash. The media in Indonesia has played a positive role in building the nation. But with power comes responsibility, and journalists and editors have to ensure that they do not incite violence or social tension with what they publish or broadcast.
The mass media has come a long way since a new press law was promulgated in September 1999 that expanded press autonomy and safeguarded freedom of expression. The Press Law prohibits the government from banning any newspaper, protects freedom of association, including the formation of journalist unions, and has led to the establishment of an independent press council to explore further areas for progress.
The law resulted in an opening up of the mass media sector, which is currently dominated by a free press. With no requirement to seek a licence before starting a publication or launching a website, the only determinant of a media organisation flourishing or collapsing is whether it is commercially viable.
This means that no media organisation can afford to ignore market forces and public preferences. Media owners must therefore play by market rules rather than arbitrary rules set by the government in power. The media sector today is characterised by both big business and public institutions.
With the advent of social media, the industry is likely to experience rapid and unprecedented change. News today is no longer controlled by large media organisations but by millions of social media members and account holders. The very face of mass media is expected to change tremendously over the next decade.
Rather than challenge these changes, today’s prominent media players must embrace them and alter their business models accordingly. As in any other industry, consumer taste and preferences are paramount to drive the growth of the sector.
The balancing of public good in terms of providing information and news and being commercially successful will be the big challenge facing Indonesian media companies over the next decade. A free society demands a free press but newsgathering and quality journalism is an expensive exercise.
The country’s democratic future will depend heavily on how liberalised the press remains. A free society requires a well-informed and educated electorate, which is where the role of the media is most pertinent. The ethos must remain therefore to continue the positive trend of recent years and take further steps and initiatives to secure liberalisation of the media architecture.
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