Politics and Free Expression in Indonesia

Once a week in Jakarta,

the antics of a fictitious president named Si Butet dari Yogya – whose initials

are “coincidentally” the same as those of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang

Yudhoyono – have convulsed television viewers on a show called Republik Mimpi (Republic of Dreams) and driven ratings through the

roof.

But State Minister of Communication and

Informatics Sofyan A. Djalil doesn’t think that’s funny. He says the show, with

a cast impersonating current and former presidents, gives a “negative political

education.” Djalil claims it could breed disrespect for the country's

leadership. The minister has been quoted as saying he would ask the Indonesian

Broadcasting Commission (KPI) to have it taken off the air if necessary.

That has kicked off a storm in Indonesia,

generating an even bigger groundswell of public and media support for the

program and earning derision for Djalil, who many believe was only trying to remind

the real SBY he actually exists in advance of a rumored cabinet reshuffle in

which some ministers are expected to be given the boot for poor performance. Former

presidents Abdurrahman Wahid, Megawati Sukarnoputri and the family of the

former strongman Suharto have all sent their support for the satirical program,

as has Vice President Jusuf Kalla. All have been repeatedly gored by the show.

Nonetheless, there is growing concern over

whether Republik Mimpi might be the canary in Indonesia’s free speech mine. When

Suharto fell in 1998, Indonesia

sprouted a rambunctious press after 32 years of suppression that saw numerous

publications closed, journalists jailed and international publications

routinely blacked out or banned. Tempo, the widely respected news magazine,

closed in 1995 by Suharto, was reopened after he fell. President Abdurrahman

Wahid abolished Suharto's feared Department of Communication and Information

shortly after he became president. His predecessor, the 'interim' president BJ

Habibie, had already signed a new press law abolishing censorship.

Indonesian television has come a long way from

the earlier post-Suharto diet of Latin-American and US soaps and sitcoms,

low-budget Chinese kung fu-style action movies, variations of Western TV game

shows, reruns of often-ancient foreign movies and Indonesian-produced “sinetrons”

or miniseries set against lush backdrops of fabulous Hollywood-style homes,

whose characters are either screaming at one another or beating one another up.

Republik Mimpi is undeniably popular. Although

published research rates mini-series as Indonesia’s

best crowd-pullers, that was before the Republic of Dreams

hit the screen. Its producers estimate direct contact, emails, letters, faxes

and text messages suggests at least 80 percent of Indonesian TV watchers now

enjoy political satire shows.

Still, Republik Mimpi is feeling the heat. After

having already arranged a Republic of Dreams road show in 10 cities across Indonesia, Sampoerna,

the giant cigarette maker now owned by Philip Morris, withdrew its sponsorship

of the program, although it’s anyone's guess whether they got their knuckles

rapped or it was a boardroom decision to steer clear of controversy. Two

episodes ago the show launched an "official" ceremony and

presidential decree changing the fictitious republic to a fictitious monarchy

named Kerajaan Mimpi (Kingdom of Dreams), then decided to stay the

course with an announcement by President Si Butet that Republik Mimpi was going

to stay a republik after all.

Then the show moved on to the surprise of

the night, an appearance by Djalil himself, who had agreed to come into the

lion's den to be interviewed by the program’s creator and host, University of

Indonesia professor Effendy Ghazali. Djalil

managed to continue smiling throughout the session but failed to convince the

packed audience that he had a valid point. The impression was that he had muffed

a one-off opportunity to win over any converts.

The show also appears to be doing just fine

without Sampoerna, gathering a flock of individual sponsors. While it may have

muted slightly its parody of leading figures, it went on site in East Java last week, where thousands of people have been

displaced by a sea of mud. The cast interviewed real live locals, one of whom gave

a harrowing account of how their lives had all been changed by a drilling

disaster for which they have, as yet, received no compensation. Few could fail to be moved by her pleas and it

emphasized just how effective the role of political satire could be in pushing

for a closer understanding by the country’s leadership towards its long

suffering people. That is, of course, if the leadership is ready to listen to

what the people are saying.

Effendy Ghazali doesn’t think

the attacks are over. Asia Sentinel caught up with him after he returned from

shooting the latest episode. Asked if the earlier fuss had been. after all,

only a storm in a teacup, Effendi said," We are not that optimistic. The

battle is not over yet”.

Effendy thinks the minister may only have been a

messenger. Because some former presidents have said publicly that they enjoy

the show, he believes that either the incumbent president, or some of his

family or inner circle, think that means he’s being made fun of. If this is

true it could be linked to the integral element of the Javanese psyche that is

against making fun of older people or those in authority.

Effendi

says the team expects other attempts to either have the show taken off

the air, or at least to influence the content or style. They will continue to

work together with the country’s journalists and activists, he says.

One who has championed the show is Wimar

Witoelar, former President Wahid’s spokesman, who knows all about repression of

free speech, having once been imprisoned for `anti-Suharto activities`. His

popular talk show Perspektif was taken off the air in 1995 after it hosted

critics of the government. When it came back on the air, Perspektif was more

popular than ever.

Wimar invited Djalil onto his talk show,

Wimar's World, to argue that Republik Mimpi's popularity was largely because of

its tendency to attack the country's leadership and claimed to have received

lots of supporting letters and text messages

.

He told Wimar that he wasn’t ready to

summon the program's executives, that he had simply said that it was a good

idea, then went on to say that although his lawyers say the program has

violated no regulations, there was still the issue of disrespect for

leadership. In a constitutional democracy, he said, the people look see their

leader as a “guiding light” who could inspire hope in situations of distress.

Wimar said in an

interview that he doesn’t believe Djalil intends to abuse his power, but his

political positioning over the issue suggests poor judgment. Nonetheless, says

Wimar, the approach was better than staying aloof from discourse, the stance

taken by Megawati.

Effendy recalls

that after another station had changed the format of the earlier

version, eventually almost neutering it into a pure comedy, the creators went

to Metro TV, where they could be sure of resistance to any intervention by the

authorities. One

of the five TV stations granted licenses under Habibie's government was Metro

TV.

The channel is a

subsidiary of the Media Group, headed by Surya Paloh, who has vast experience

in the local media industry and publishes the country's third biggest

mainstream daily, Media Indonesia. Surya, a poor farmer's son from Aceh started

his career in 1986 with the publication of Prioritas Daily. His frequent

criticisms of Suharto led to the paper being censured and its publishing

license revoked.

Although Surya, who is also a major figure

in the country’s biggest political party Golkar, has remained uncharacteristically

quiet over the furor, at least in public, he is clearly a force to be reckoned

with by anyone attempting to restrict freedom of speech.

The real SBY, who defeated Megawati in a

landslide election victory in 2004, reportedly enjoys Republik Mimpi, although

that rumor could be taken with a big pinch of salt, given the fate of Republik

Benar Benar Mabuk (Drunken

Republic), which was

written by the same team and preceded Republik Mimpi.

Last year it was taken off the air by the Indosiar

television station after complaints from Vice President Kalla, which insiders

say had the backing of SBY. But Kalla once

appeared in person on an episode of Republic Mimpi. So maybe there will be no Diktatorship Mimpi in

the works.