Being a journalist in Indonesia involves a lot of waiting – waiting for defendants to arrive at courts, waiting for officials to give their speeches, waiting for press conferences to begin, and so on.
During these times, plenty of joking around usually occurs, and one of the favorites is the “your boss” joke. Given the presence of media “bosses” in Indonesia's public life, it's easy to see why these jokes never get old.
What's more, Indonesian journalists often find themselves in the awkward situation of covering political (and sometimes legal) matters related closely to their own superiors.
TVOne, one of the country’s biggest private news channels, is partly owned by PT Bakrie Global Ventura – a company controlled by the Bakrie family. Aburizal Bakrie was chairman of the company from 1999 to 2004; now he's running for the presidency in the 2014 elections for one of the leading political parties, the Golkar party.
Surya Paloh, who owns another leading news channel, Metro TV, is the chair of newcomer NasDem party, which was established in 2011.
A new documentary, Di Balik Frekuensi (Behind the Frequency), which premiered in January and was screened in Melbourne during the 8th Indonesian Film Festival last month, is bringing some of these tensions into the public eye.
The film’s main protagonists, Luviana and Hari Suwandi, are victims of the big media conglomerates. Luviana fought against what she saw as Metro TV’s unjust treatment of its workers and was dismissed after 10 years service to the company.
Hari Suwandi was one of the victims of the mudflow disaster in Sidoarjo, East Java, a disaster some allege was caused by the activities of oil and gas exploration company PT Lapindo Brantas, partly owned by the Bakrie family.
Aside from telling the protagonists’ stories, however, Di Balik Frekuensi, which was funded by the Ford Foundation, also successfully captures the conflicts and interests in Indonesia’s media nowadays – some 15 years after the end of the authoritarian New Order regime, which put tight reins on press freedom.
“The media has been working for 15 years in the reformation era until we arrived at the situation that you have seen [in the film]… the media was silenced back then, but it is bought now,” Ucu Agustin, the film’s writer, director and producer, told NM after the Melbourne screening.
A journalist herself, Ucu has made a number of documentary movies including At Stake, Ragat’e Anak and Conspiracy of Silence, which digs into the problems in the country’s healthcare system and medical malpractice.
She learned an important principle regarding Indonesia’s justice system during the making of Conspiracy of Silence.
“[Making that movie] made me learn that when someone is having [legal]problems, they would be faced with two lines of questions only: Do you want truth or do you want money? When you come to legal aid institutions. That is what the lawyers will ask you,” Ucu said.
Luviana chose truth over money, “and since she made that statement I became confident that this is my protagonist,” Ucu said.
One of the striking themes in Di Balik Frekuensi is media concentration; Indonesia's expanding media scene is still owned by a tiny number of people.
There are more than 1200 radio stations, more than 1700 print media and at least 76 television stations in Indonesia. Most of them are owned by one of the country’s 12 media magnates, including Surya Paloh and Hary Tanoesoedibjo, who recently joined the Hanura (People’s Conscience) Party.
This “conglomeration” may affect the media’s independence, especially when its owners are politically wired.
Di Balik Frekuensi depicts this danger through the words of the journalists themselves, who hint, for example, that they are told to prioritise covering events that have the potential to promote the image of their bosses.
Ucu appears to have little confidence in the government’s ability to take action against this situation, because, according to her, “the system is still corrupt”.
“The first thing is for the journalists to have the courage to speak up about their rights – that they are in a profession that requires ethics,” Ucu said during the question-and-answer session after the screening.
“[The journalists] always say ‘we work for the public’ but when they themselves are in trouble, they lack the power … the public is unable to help because it is unaware of what is happening inside ‘their kitchen’, and, as in Luviana’s case, they will easily be accused of defamation when they speak publicly [about their troubles with the company].”
Often journalists' isolation is due to non-disclosure clauses in their contracts that stipulate the company’s internal problems must not be brought outside. “[I]n the end they are forced to accommodate requests from owners of the media,” Ucu added.
The Jakarta branch of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) recently released a statement saying that the average journalist in Jakarta is still paid less than Rp 5.4 million (AUS$545) per month. This benchmark, for journalists who have been working for at least a year, was set by AJI based on 40 cost of living and professional expenses.
Some companies were paying journalists under the provincial minimum wage of Rp 2.2 million, according to the alliance.
Thus far, Ucu said that she is yet to receive any negative or threatening feedback from the media owners portrayed in Di Balik Frekuensi.
“We hope that this film will not trigger negative responses, because our team always sees the media as a partner, not our enemy, and we hope that the media and journalists will take this film as a criticism and can return to the right track,” she said.
And as for the government, Ucu said she is yet to receive any feedback from them at all.
“There was a request from the Vice President’s media staff for a screening, but they asked for a DVD copy and we refuse [to give one]because that will only be watched in a room. We want them to hold a screening involving journalists that cover events in the presidential and vice presidential palace,” she said.
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