Media Power in Indonesia: Oligarchs, Citizens and the Digital Revolution

Media Power in Indonesia: Oligarchs, Citizens and the Digital Revolution

by Ross Tapsell


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Media Power in Indonesia: Oligarchs, Citizens and the Digital Revolution by Ross Tapsell

Indonesia is undergoing a process of rapid change, with an affluent middle class due to hit 141 million people by 2020. While official statistics suggest that internet penetration is low, over 70 million Indonesians have a Facebook account, the fourth highest group in the world. Jakarta is the Twitter capital of the world with more tweets per minute than any other city around the globe. In the past ten years digitalisation of media content has enabled extensive concentration and conglomeration of the industry, and media owners are wealthier and more politically powerful than ever before.

Digital media is a prominent place of contestation between large, powerful oligarchs, and citizens looking to bring about rapid and meaningful change. This book examines how the political agencies of both oligarchs and ‘netizens’ are enhanced by digitalisation, and how an increasingly divergent society is being formed. In doing so, this book enters this debate about the transformations of society and power in the digital age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786600363
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 08/16/2018
Series: Media, Culture and Communication in Asia-Pacific Societies Series
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.09(h) x 0.62(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Dr Ross Tapsell is a lecturer and Indonesia specialist at the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. He has been a Visiting Fellow at The University of Indonesia (Jakarta), Airlangga University (Surabaya) and Indiana University in the USA.

Read an Excerpt


The medium and the message

Whenever a new media technology is introduced and on the verge of widespread uptake, scholars search for analysis about its immediate impact. Krishna Sen argues that 'the media has been the site of every momentous transition in living memory' in Indonesia. In examining the impact of digitalisation in shaping contemporary Indonesian politics and society, and the power structures within it, it is important to note that digital media did not arrive in Indonesia in a vacuum but as a continuation of earlier technological advancements in communications. This chapter explains how various media have shifted power structures throughout Indonesia's history, from printed nationalist newspapers to government-controlled television and radio production, to the internet. Scholars who examine Indonesia's media do so to advance or dispel arguments about power structures within Indonesian society. This does not mean that they believe technology per se is the reason for political transitions, but rather that the political agency of a section of Indonesian society becomes enabled by new media technologies.

One way to understand the impact of media is to think about the 'message' it brings. In 1964, Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan famously argued that the form in which people communicate – the medium itself – is the most significant aspect of any examination of the media. He argued that media studies scholarship was focused on content or discourse analysis, and missed the more important element of how the medium shapes the content. McLuhan claimed that the widespread use of any artefact, whether or not it was clearly a medium of communication, sends a 'message' to the whole culture by shaping human thinking, behaviour and interactions into a particular pattern. For decades, scholars have written many analyses of McLuhan's approach of studying the particular characteristics or 'types' of media. McLuhan's scholarship faced significant criticism in the 1970s, and by the1980s Understanding Media and many of his other books were out of print. However, the mid-1990s and the arrival of the internet saw his work revived. McLuhan's writings 'have come to be seen as predicting events and processes that did not occur until decades after his description of them'. There was even a book entitled Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium, as scholars looked to tackle a new era of 'cyberspace' and the 'world wide web'. McLuhan's most-quoted statement that 'the medium is the message' continues to be discussed and critiqued. But for all his 'incomplete and sometimes baffling writing', McLuhan brought prominence to the field of media studies and the study of 'the medium' itself as central to structural changes in society, politics and world affairs.

In this chapter I will not seek to revisit McLuhan's scholarship in detail but argue that thinking about how the 'medium' of digital encourages certain 'messages' is crucial to understanding the impact of digitalisation on Indonesian society. In short: if the 'new' medium is digital, what is the message? To answer this question, we need to understand how previous scholars of Indonesian studies have examined the consequences of 'new' media being introduced to the archipelago. This chapter begins with the case of print media in newly independent Indonesia, moves on to discuss television throughout the New Order period and concludes with a discussion of the arrival of the internet in the late 1990s. The early sections of this chapter sweep through contemporary Indonesian history and argue that each time a new medium enters Indonesian society, it has a profound impact on the way society works.

The section titled 'Prelude to the digital era' introduces the arrival of digital technologies, explaining their evolution and early connection with the internet. The final section posits the argument of remaining chapters in this book surrounding the digital media paradox: despite digitalisation enabling technology to be more convergent, Indonesian society is in fact becoming more divergent. Oligarchs and netizens have both been empowered by digitalisation, but their empowerment takes Indonesia in different trajectories.


This book is not the first to emphasise the importance of a new medium in shaping Indonesian society. Benedict Anderson's famous analysis of how nations are 'imagined' was an examination of print media, in particular new, nationalist newspapers in Java. As he writes in Imagined Communities (1983), print capitalism allowed for the spread 'out into the marketplace and the media' of the national language, bahasa Indonesia, which helped build solidarity among young, elite Indonesians. The print media informed a collective understanding that there was a 'steady, anonymous, simultaneous experience' of readers, even if they 'addressed itself primarily to the elite, urban Indonesians rather than to the masses'. For Anderson, the newspaper was the key medium not only because it enabled and encouraged vernacular 'print-languages' but also because it created an imagining of a new kind of 'sovereign community'. In his view, newspapers acted as vehicles for revolutionary ideals, and carried optimistic messages about a new nation, of a new and exciting period, presenting common themes which highlighted the importance of a unified nation. Anderson's thesis has similarities to McLuhan's in that it emphasises the importance of the form of media, not solely the content which is produced. In McLuhanesque terms, the key medium was 'print' and the message it produced was the 'nation'.

Because it reached a larger audience, radio is described as the 'communication medium of Indonesian independence', with particular emphasis on the importance of the medium in broadcasting new leaders Sukarno and Hatta's Declaration of Independence on 17 August 1945. The government-operated Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) came into operation only 25 days after this declaration, and RRI would continue to be an important avenue to reach citizens throughout the vast archipelago. Indonesia would become known as the 'microphone republic' with Sukarno, a brilliant orator, as its first president. Through RRI, Sukarno used radio broadcasting to deliver his message of a new nation and its founding principles. Yet radio is also described as a 'forgotten medium' or the 'invisible medium' by scholars who study it in Indonesia and elsewhere.

So, print media was consumed predominantly by a tiny privileged elite group who were literate and able to be reached by its distribution, yet its impact is seen as profound and far-reaching in empowering a new political class. Conversely, radio reached more citizens, and correlates closely with the Indonesian oral culture of information-gathering, yet it is apparently undervalued. This distinction has important conclusions for our understanding of the impact of digital media. I will return to this point about empowered minorities later, but the key point here is to show that leading scholarship on Indonesian media has not always been based around high levels of audience consumption. Rather, it was the 'message' it brings to Indonesian society through its introduction. For example, the importance of print media in shaping ideas in Indonesia was further reinforced post-independence when one of the first acts of President Sukarno in implementing his autocratic 'Guided Democracy' rule was to ban newspapers which he determined were 'opposition press'.

In conclusion, medium theorists argue that new media technologies privilege certain groups and identities and weaken others, and this book continues this theme. Print media privileged the idea of educated, urban elites, while at the same time assisting in the production of a broader sovereign community who rallied around a vernacular language. This language and community was later broadcast on national radio to a larger cohort of people who now began to consider themselves 'Indonesians'. Despite its legacy as a forgotten medium, the role of radio in spreading news of the revolution was crucial, and signalled the beginning of a scholarship examining the broadcast media as 'mass communication': in particular as a tool to promote national identity and build support for a dictatorial regime.


Television, with its centralised need for capital and communications infrastructure, was a perfect medium for an authoritarian regime to justify and legitimise its rule. Indonesia's initial sole permitted television station, Televisi Republik Indonesia (TVRI), was government-owned and controlled. It was created in 1962 in preparation for the Asian Games, and at the height of Sukarno's 'Guided Democracy'. TVRI quickly became a 'prime engine of national union and unity', and would communicate government policies and programs to the public, although initially this footage was received only in Jakarta and a few large provincial centres. Television contributed to the feeling of 'nationness', in extending the national economic market, and in preparing citizens as central players in the nation's development.

Sukarno's government was overthrown in 1965, ushering in new president Suharto's military regime, described as the 'New Order' (1965–1998). Throughout Suharto's Indonesia, television was used expertly to legitimise and maintain the nation's new identity as a progressive developmental state, with Suharto as the 'Father of Development'. During the early years of the New Order, television aimed to unite the nation as a 'mass', all moving towards the same objective set by the government. State-owned TVRI broadcast only government messages, even without commercial advertising, because officials worried that the 'ignorant masses' would be too easily led.

Television became highly popular in Indonesia as household ownership of a television set grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971, there were only 212,580 registered television sets, and only 5% of these were registered outside of Java. By 1983 nearly three million sets were registered, reaching an estimated total of 95.5 million people, or about 64% of the population. By then, TVRI had 9 stations and 190 transmitters, and by 1994, it had 12 stations and 328 transmitters with a radius of 806,116 square kilometres. At its height in the late 1990s, TVRI owned 27 local stations, had approximately 7,000 employees and its broadcasts reached 82% of the population.

In 1976 Indonesia became the first country in the developing world to launch a satellite, named Palapa I, at a cost of USD 73 million. Through satellite transmission, television allowed Indonesia's highly centralised government to spread its message throughout the country's 18,000 islands, and was 'another illustration of state authorities' desire to control communications – this time primarily for military purposes but also for cultural and education purposes'. Satellite television was a 'national teacher', contributing to 'integration' of Indonesian society. Many rural villagers learnt bahasa Indonesia from watching television, while television explained national 'values' to a large segment of the adult rural population.

This is not to say that other media throughout the New Order were irrelevant. Print media became more shackled in the New Order, and subject to stringent controls. When Suharto came to power in 1965, it took less than a year for his government to introduce a new Press Bill which imposed severe limitations on the print media. Publications which published dissenting voices could have their licences revoked. Forty-six of Indonesia's (then) 163 daily papers were actually banned within days of Suharto taking power. For example, Indonesia's weekly magazine Tempo faced regular threats from officials and was banned in 1994, yet often attempted to report as best as it could on the machinations of Indonesian politics. Jacob Oetama was chief editor of Kompas during the majority of Suharto's New Order. He recalls: 'Kompas policy was to report as much as possible, but in order to be able to report, we had to be very wise, or cautious, or cowardly'. Anderson would later describe Indonesia's largest selling daily newspaper, Kompas, as 'the New Order newspaper par excellence'. Yet, because the broadcast media were more easily controlled than print, dissenters and activists were more likely to come from print media. As such, the study of print media in Indonesia was mostly framed in terms of broader issues pertaining to freedom of expression under an oppressive military regime.

From the 1980s, observers noted that the Indonesian press underwent a transformation to become heavily industrialised. Daniel Dhakidae has argued that Indonesian journalism under the New Order became 'politically de-capacitated' due to a concentration of ownership encouraged by both the state and market forces as early as 1975. He explains how media companies were all concentrated in the hands of a few members of the New Order ruling elite, who could thus control the flow of news. Control of the media and communication also provided the Suharto family with enormous wealth, estimated at over USD 5 billion in Time magazine in 1999, a feature of Suharto's nepotistic and corrupt regime. Investors and media entrepreneurs not well connected to the regime were deliberately shut out. Dahlan Iskan, who bought the struggling Jawa Pos newspaper in 1982 when it had only 2,400 subscribers, recalls: 'During the New Order, regulation made it impossible to expand your media business. One company was only allowed one newspaper. One newspaper cannot join another newspaper. There were 42 regulations on media business, as far as I can recall. We could not publish more than 12 pages. We cannot print in other cities'. Thus, Suharto restricted the impact of print by limiting ownership business models, and by concentration of ownership.

The mass media became the most important area of maintenance and nurturing of the Suharto authoritarian regime's legitimisation, and television was central to this process. Scholars increasingly stressed the importance of studying the medium of television in order to make sense of Suharto's regime. The message of the New Order was one of homogeneity and 'national unity', and the medium of television best allowed for this controlled, state-sponsored ideal. British scholar Mark Hobart wrote that 'from 1970 it became difficult to ignore the social consequences of television. The mass media raised ethnographic and theoretical challenges about how to analyze and understand what was happening'. For Hobart, it led to ideas around the exact nature of what constitutes 'the audience', and how scholars and elites might imagine them. The Indonesian media in the Suharto era 'was to affirm an imaginary order, which vested the speaker with authority, not to inform or represent others' thoughts and ideas, but render them passive subjects'. Television was advanced as the dominant medium of the New Order by the government. The content of TVRI news reports began with President Suharto, who often gave long speeches about development and national unity. The precise words of the president were not overly important. Rather, it was that it was his rightful place to be the first to convey the message of news reports, exemplifying the paternalistic nature of the New Order regime. New Order officials measured the media by 'the degree of its contribution towards making overall national development a success'. The medium of television best exemplified the New Order 'message' of the developmental Indonesian state.

Transnational satellite

In the 1980s, new media technologies presented Indonesian policy-makers with a serious challenge. Segments of the Indonesian elite and middle class were able to purchase transnational satellite television, which provided an alternative to the state-owned TVRI broadcasts. As other countries began to enjoy greater diversity of television stations, Indonesia's elite demanded similar opportunities. In this context, commercial television came to Indonesia, driven both by popular audience-centred dynamics and as a way to stimulate the economy through commercial advertising.

Of course, there were certain rules new, privately owned Indonesian television stations were forced to abide by. Stations were chartered to promote the national interest, which included advertising. There were rules surrounding the installation and registration of satellite dishes to make sure they were tuned only to Indonesia's Palapa satellite, which meant they could not receive signals of Malaysian or Thai satellite programs (although these rules were not particularly easy to enforce). Most crucially, all commercial television licences were issued to business leaders who were part of or close to the president's family, including Suharto's daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana (known as 'Tutut'), and son Bambang Trihatmodjo. Jeffrey Winters describes this as 'the family phase', where Suharto's six children were old enough to get among the 'action' and as Suharto began to lay the 'ground work for a dynastic succession'. As such, television remained the dominant medium for understanding the nature of the New Order regime.


Excerpted from "Media Power in Indonesia"
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Copyright © 2017 Ross Tapsell.
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Table of Contents

Introduction Digital media in Indonesia/ 1. The medium and the message / 2. Digital conglomerates / 3. Media Oligarchs / 4. Counter-oligarchic media/ 5. Digital media ecosystems/ Conclusion/ Bibliography/ Index

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