Indonesian Official Seeks to Muzzle the Press

A member of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s cabinet has kicked off a furor by attempting to censure media domestic organizations that print negative news about the president and the country.

There is plenty of bad news to report. Over recent months, the country has been hit by stories over corruption and growing militancy on the part of firebrand Islamic fundamentalists, who stormed an Ahmadiyah sect compound recently and murdered three members of the sect. A growing segment of the Indonesian electorate sees Yudhoyono as indecisive and timid to take action against either the corruption or the growing religious violence.

Despite a massive backlash, Cabinet Secretary Dipo Alam says he is standing by his call forgovernment institutions to put an advertising boycott on certain media organizations, particularly television news channel Metro and Media Indonesia, both owned by politician and media magnate Surya Paloh, and added that he is ready to face whatever consequences came with it. Last week, Alam called in all public relations officers from government ministries to order them not to place advertising in any media that is perceived to be negative to Yudhoyono.

Since the fall of the late strongman Suharto in 1998 after three decades of censorship, Indonesia has grown some of the liveliest press in Southeast Asia, with both print and electronic media flourishing, even in the face of a draconian criminal libel law that politicians often threaten to wield against journalists .

Metro TV and Media Indonesia both demanded an apology. But during a hearing with the House Commission to discuss the Presidential Unit for Development, Supervision and Oversight (UKP4), Alam said he would not back down from his controversial statements.

"Dipo Alam is Dipo Alam," he said in English. "I will never apologize."

Metro TV chief editor Suryopratomo said the apology was necessary to make Alam aware of his mistake.

"Otherwise there will be more violations of the Press Law and the Freedom of Information Law and he should know that as a government official," he said.

The dispute began on Monday after Alam said he had called on government institutions to implement an advertising boycott on media organizations that relentlessly portrayed Indonesia as a "messy and dark" country.

On Tuesday Alam accused three media organizations – Metro TV, TVOne and Media Indonesia newspaper – of spreading hatred toward the government through their news organizations. TVOne is also owned by a politician, Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie.

The media organizations have denied his accusations and government officials and lawmakers were quick to denounce his statements, calling it a violation of constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press.

Alam, however, maintained on Wednesday that these media groups had crossed the line, creating such a falsely negative image of the country that it was beginning to affect perceptions of Indonesia among foreign investors and diplomats.

"They have been asking me about the move to impeach the president," he said. "These negative images and messages that have been made by the media, badmouthing the president’s administration, have successfully created the perception among people in the country and overseas that Indonesia is headed toward chaos and failure."

Alam has also pointed out that he suspected there are other motives behind the negative news coverage, saying the way they lambasted the government "is not purely to spread news."

"I did not say that I would boycott media that is simply critical [of the government]," Dipo said. "I said I would boycott them if they kept on lambasting [the government] intentionally."

Meanwhile, Press Council deputy chairman Bambang Harymurti said the council had invited Alam for a meeting to hear his grievances directly. Even if he could not attend the meeting, Haryamurti said, the council expected him to send a representative.

"We want to clarify his statements that were quoted in the media and whether they were directed to the media in general," Haryamurti said, adding that the council also wants to ask Alam why he did not lodge his complaints with the council or the broadcasting commission first.

With reporting by the Jakarta Globe