Politics and Free Expression in Indonesia
|Our Correspondent||Mar 26, 2007|
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
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.
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.
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
of the five TV stations granted licenses under Habibie's government was Metro
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
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