BOB GARFIELD: During the three decades of Suharto's repressive regime in Indonesia the media were fiercely controlled. In 1998, Suharto was ousted, and reform led to a boom in newspapers, television and radio. For 4 years the media in Indonesia flourished. Recently the Indonesian Parliament passed a law to take media ownership out of the hands of Suharto era cronies in Jakarta and increase regional television. The Economist's Edward McBride reported on the new law from Jakarta and predicts that dismantling the old guard won't make it easier for regional TV.
EDWARD McBRIDE: All the wealth in Indonesia, like the political power, is still concentrated in Jakarta, and so the government was hoping both to increase the ownership of media outlets, of television stations in particular, around Indonesia; also to increase the diversity of opinions and at the same time hopefully get rid of some of the Suharto cronies who still dominate the media sector. So that intention at least was a good one.
BOB GARFIELD:What was the mechanism? If they want to increase the diversity of ownership and have more diversity of expression, how do you do that?
EDWARD McBRIDE: What they did was they said that every television station could only be licensed for a particular province. Indonesia's a huge country; it's as big east to west as America. It has over 30 provinces. But there's no such thing now under the new media law as a nationwide television license. Those nationwide licenses that already existed -- there were 10 of them -- were scrapped, and instead now each TV company will only be allowed to broadcast in one province of Indonesia, and the idea is that each province will therefore get new companies who will broadcast only in that province and reflect the-- ideas and opinions of the people living there.
BOB GARFIELD:I can see how that kind of regulation is well-intended, but it'd also seem to me that one of the obvious consequences is that whoever bought a station that had a national reach --corrupt or not corrupt -- this person would suddenly have a license that's worth a whole lot less if it can only serve a single province. How did the media owners react?
EDWARD McBRIDE: That's right! There were 10 companies with nationwide licenses. They didn't actually pay for the licenses, but obviously they did build business plans; they took loans out from the bank-- on the idea that they'd be able to sell advertising and gain revenue from all around the country. All of a sudden they can't.
BOB GARFIELD:As a practical matter, is, is there any market for-- regional stations in Indonesia? Is anybody going to pony up the money to have such a limited reach?
EDWARD McBRIDE: Presumably now if you're going to make the investment to set up a TV station, you want to do it in the big, lucrative markets, and that is Jakarta. Maybe one or two other cities. But certainly not the neglected regions that the law was designed to help.
BOB GARFIELD:In the brief golden age from 1998 to 2002 of a flourishing media in Indonesia, do you believe that it had a net positive effect on trends towards democracy?
EDWARD McBRIDE: On the whole-- simply the idea that Indonesians would be exposed to lots of different opinions and have a chance to debate these issues in public is an enormous change; a change that was warmly welcomed by the Indonesians as one they themselves would point to as one of the most significant if not the most significant democratic changes since Suharto's fall.
BOB GARFIELD: So what's the moral of this story?
EDWARD McBRIDE:The moral would be that it's all very well and good to reform the broadcasting laws, but you have to make sure that you're balancing the ideals of your reform -- in this case the ideal of increasing the diversity of voices in the media -- with the practicalities of it, and in modern, latter day Indonesia the practicalities are simply that the money - the businessmen willing to invest in television in particular - live in Jakarta. A lot of those people have ties to the old regime. If you want to get television business going, you're going to have to make some kind of compromise between allowing those people to continue to participate in the business and putting up with some of the political baggage that goes along with that.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Edward McBride, thank you very much.
EDWARD McBRIDE: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Edward McBride is a reporter for The Economist magazine. He spoke to us from Jakarta, Indonesia.