Tuesday, January 24, 2006
  No News is Old News

Incoming emails and Indcoup have alerted Jakartass to a piece of news I should have noted when it first surfaced, around the beginning of December last year.

I am posting the article, originally in the Jakarta Post and also in Asia Media, in its near entirety as it certainly raises important issues and merits further consideration.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued regulations that prohibit private broadcasting stations from relaying regular news broadcasts transmitted by foreign media, depriving the public the right to immediate and direct access to information. Millions of Indonesians throughout this vast archipelago will soon be unable to get alternative sources of information.

Voice of America's Indonesian language service is relayed by some 160 private radio stations, the BBC has 86 partners; It is not clear how many private radio stations relay Radio Australia, Germany's Deutsche Welle and the Netherlands' Radio Hilversum.

It will be interesting to see the reactions of taxpayers from Indonesia's donor countries when they realize that this government is imposing a blanket censorship on news and current affairs broadcast by their respective radio and television stations.

The local private radio stations are merely trying to meet their audiences continuous demand for more international news and news about Indonesia as seen from a non-Indonesian perspective. The vast majority of Indonesians are hungry for information -- a commodity they were deprived of for 32 years during the Soeharto's era and further during parts of the Sukarno era.

They want to know more about sports, especially reports on international soccer, and they want the program English on Radio, which usually follows the news and current affairs broadcasts by the western radio stations. They also want to listen to the Science and Technology program, one of the most popular after the news.

Soon, there will be no more relays of regular news programs for local radio stations when the regulation is implemented. It may also deprive viewers of Kabelvision and Indovision, which broadcast ABC, BBC, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, and many other international television stations.

Article 17 (5.a.) of the Government Regulation No. 50/05 on Private Broadcast Institutions, signed by President Susilo on Nov. 16, stipulates that: "Private Broadcasting Institutions are forbidden to relay regular broadcast programs originating from foreign broadcasting institutions, which include program types: a. news; b. music programs with improper performances; and c. sports broadcasts which show sadistic acts."

Those who violate this ruling will be given administrative sanctions in the form of a temporary ban, article 51 of the Regulation states.

It is not clear why the government took such a repressive act in this age of press freedom and the public outcry for freedom of information. What is clear, though, is that in its dictum on consideration, the regulation only mentioned Article 5 (2) of the 1945 Constitution, which empowers the government to issue regulations. It did not, however make any reference whatsoever to Article 28 and 28-F of the Constitution, which acknowledge the right of every person to communicate and to seek information. Article 28-F is more or less adopted from Article 19 of the UN Charter on Human Rights.

The regulation also fails to include in its consideration Article 28-I of the Constitution, which deals with human rights. The article stipulates: "(1) The right to live, the right not to be tortured, the right to a free mind and conscience ... are human rights that can not be taken away regardless of the situation."

Back in the 2001-2002 period, during the deliberation of the Broadcast Bill (now Law No. 32/2002 on Broadcasting), the Coalition for the Public's Right to Information, which includes the Indonesian Press and Broadcast Society (MPPI), Komunikasi Universitas Indonesia, Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), the Institute of Free Flow of Information Studies (ISAI) and many more NGOs, strongly rejected the inclusion of an article in the Bill which limits news relays. But the coalition was defeated and that became Article 40 of Law No. 32/2002.

Point (2) of the article stipulates that, "Broadcast relays used as regular programs, be they domestic or foreign products, shall be limited." Point (3) states: "Broadcast relays as regular programs from foreign broadcasting institutions, should be limited in duration, type and number."

The new regulation does not limit news programs regularly relayed by local radio stations, it bans them entirely. One then may ask, how repressive can this government get?

The enactment of the four Regulations (Concerning: Guidelines for Foreign Broadcasting Coverage; Private Broadcasting; Community Broadcasting; and Pay TV), has boosted the power of the Department of Communication and Information (Kominfo), and usurps some of the power of the Independent Broadcasting Commission (KPI), making it a mere messenger boy. Many media observers say that Kominfo has now become the reincarnation of the repressive Department of Information (Deppen) under former President Soeharto.

The KPI, when first established by the Broadcast Law of 2002, was originally to be become an independent regulatory body, similar to that of the FCC in the U.S., or the Office of Communication (formerly Independent Television Communication and Radio Authority) in UK, or the Australian Broadcasting Authority, or the Canadian Radio and Television Commission. But KPI's power and authority have now been stripped away by the latest government regulation on broadcasting, to be mere a body to receive application documents for radio spectrum frequency allocations, make recommendations to the Kominfo Minister and pass on the minister's reply to the applicants.

Media observers here also believe that legally, Kominfo cannot deprive KPI of its power because under the Indonesian legal system, the position of the Broadcast Law is higher than the Government Regulation. Its rulings must not supercede a higher law. However, many will recall that Article 28 of the 1945 Constitution, which respects press freedom, was also highly regarded during the Soeharto era, but at the same time it was still violated. Many newspapers and magazines were closed down during his 32-year reign. So, since President Susilo has turned the clock back more than 40 years, will history repeat itself?

The writer is a lecturer at the Dr. Soetomo Press Institute, Jakarta, and member of the Press and Broadcast Society of Indonesia (MPPI). He can be emailed here.

According to the Straits Times (paid subscription only) yesterday, the rules will take effect on Feb 6.

I'll leave it at that today whilst I attempt to frame a suitable riposte for tomorrow. Any comments will be gratefully incorporated.

Meantimes, it's worth noting that there are serious attempts afoot to control access to the internet.


4:39 pm
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