Indonesian Gov't Aims To Ban Foreign News Broadcasts

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Radio and television stations in the world's largest Islamic country will be prohibited from airing U.S. and other foreign news programs, if the Indonesian government gets its way.

In the face of criticism from press freedom campaigners and analysts, the government plans to push through parliament later this month legislation that incorporates a ban on international news broadcasts.

A new broadcasting bill also will allow the government to appoint civil servants to supervise the material being broadcast by media organizations - even though existing press legislation outlaws censorship.

A number of Indonesia's more than 1,100 privately-owned radio stations and 10 local television networks have arrangements to relay news programs from foreign outlets, including CNN, the Voice of America, the BBC and Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Communications and Information Minister Syamsul Muarif said this week the proposed ban was intended to stop local stations from broadcasting programs that served the interests of foreign parties.

The restriction is aimed particularly at news programs, although music shows - MTV has been mentioned by some officials - and some sporting events deemed inappropriate will also be affected.

An explanatory note to the legislation describes these as "music programs whose performances are improper and sports programs that display sadism."

The minister said local stations would still be allowed to relay some foreign sports programs and other international events.

Even for those foreign educational, religious, cultural and sports programs that are allowed, they may not exceed 40 percent of broadcasting time on local stations.

The law also restricts foreign investment in private stations to a maximum of 20 percent.

The House of Representatives has already agreed to a draft version of the bill, which mandates five-year jail terms and large fines for offenders.

Criticism this week has been fierce.

The Alliance of Independent Journalists called the proposed ban "unacceptable, ridiculous and hard to believe," and said it "reeks of censorship."

Media observer Mufti Syarfie told the official Antara news agency that irrespective of the reason for the ban, it would "only hinder the process of the people's education in the present era of information democratization."

And the Laksamana news portal said the legislation would come as "a blow for Indonesians who enjoy tuning into broadcasts of foreign news, rather than watching inane soap operas."

Abdullah Alamudi, a senior lecturer at the Dr. Soetomo Press Institute in Jakarta, attributed the legislation to concern by President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government about media criticism of its performance.

He said the bill, if passed in its present form, would violate articles of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights and Indonesia's existing press law, which outlaws censorship.

Abdullah called on "democracy-loving nations" to pressure Jakarta to back down.

'Insular Indonesians'

For most Indonesians, the outside world only recently opened up to them.

Under Gen. Suharto's three decade-long rule, the tightly controlled state broadcasting network, Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI), enjoyed an effective news monopoly, according to Dr. Greg Fealy, who teaches contemporary Indonesian politics at the Australian National University.

After Suharto fell in 1998, however, there has been a proliferation of broadcasters, particularly radio stations, he said Friday.

These ranged across a broad spectrum, from stations promoting fundamentalist Islam to Christian-run broadcasters and stations giving a secular nationalist viewpoint. Some were critical of the government while others were sympathetic, he said.

Many of them relayed news programs from foreign media organizations, which both broadened listeners' views of the outside world and gave local journalists insights into professional media standards.

"This is something of value to Indonesians because it gives them another perspective on events, not only in their own country but elsewhere in the world. It's regrettable this law is seeking to restrict that."

The other retrogressive aspect of the bill, Fealy said, was that it provides authority for government officials to be inspectors in media companies.

Broadcasters may be shut down if they are considered to have breached the law, parts of which he said were open to wide interpretation.

"This move is a reversal of the process of media liberalization that has been underway since mid-1998."

Fealy said denial of information from abroad may make Indonesians "more insular than they are. That's already a problem, there's already a large number who are extremely suspicious, particularly towards the West.

"They would argue that they have good reason for that, but quite often that's not necessarily a well-informed view, [because] a lot of other people have very limited access to a range of views about international events.

"So it's desirable that they have access to as many views as possible - regardless of what conclusions they draw from them."

Fealy noted that the bill's provisions have sparked widespread unhappiness in Indonesia and criticism from large press groups.

He expressed the hope that lawmakers may consider compromise proposals.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow