Written by Natalie Berner

Back to Country Selection


  • Area: 1.904.569 square kilometers
  • Population: 255 million (2015)
  • Capital: Jakarta
  • State form: Unitary presidential constitutional republic
  • Official language: Bahasa Indonesia
  • Religion: Muslim (87.2%), Christian (9.9%), Hindu (1.7%)

  • Flag of Indonesia

    Indonesia holds a lot of superlatives: world’s third most populous democracy, world’s largest archipelagic state and world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. After four decades of authoritarianism Indonesia is – besides its ethnic and territorial diversity – facing the challenge of consolidating democracy. It is still in the progress of transition. The status quo of the press freedom is declared as “partly free” by Freedom House 2015 (Press Freedom Score 49/100, Rank 96/199), the World Press Freedom Index 2016 sees Indonesia as well in a “difficult situation” (Score 42/100, Rank 130/168). Reasons for complaint are the misuse of corporate power by media tycoons with specific political interests, low salaries for journalists, the lack of professionalism, the widespread practice of “envelope journalism”, corruption in general and the danger of reporting about taboo topics like separatism in Papua New Guinea or environmental issues. The possibility to be accused of defamation causes uncertainty regarding legal protection for journalists. Nevertheless, the Indonesian media system made strong progress during the reformasi era after the fall of President Suharto, so that – at least theoretically – Indonesia has nowadays the most open and liberal media system in Southeast Asia. The following report is based on document analysis and two expert interviews conducted in summer 2016.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Political Environment
    The political environment is characterized by the transformation of an authoritarian system to a liberal democracy. Even though the political change took place in 1998, Indonesia is still in the transitional period and tries to convert its political structures from Suharto’s repressive “New Order” policy (1966-1998) to the challenge of a democratic republic. The “idealistic democracy enthusiasm of the early years had to give way in many cases for disillusionment”, outlines Graf (2009: 916) in his analysis about the media system. The current president Joko Widodo (Democratic Party of Struggle) was elected for five years and was dubbed as “the Indonesian Obama”. However, he disappointed due to some “serious media freedom violations, including lack of access to West Papua” (RWB: 2015). Because of separatism movements in that area, the government and the police prevent reporters to write about that topic fairly. According to RWB, journalists trying to work there are liable to be arrested and foreign journalist are hindered to report on site by not getting a visa. Two reporters were detained in Papua in 2015. According to Freedom of the Press they were filming undercover a documentary for the French-German television network Arte.

    Another political practice, which shapes the political environment negatively in Indonesia, is corruption. Bribery in the public sector is common (Transparency International 2015). Asked about the developments in Indonesia during the past decade, Thomas Hanitzsch, a media and journalism researcher from Munich, indicates that the handling with the newly introduced press freedom has to be learned. The situation is getting better and institutional channels to control and to protect media are in the process of establishing. Most interventions nowadays come rather from community groups like Muslim associations than from the state (Hanitzsch 2016).

    Legal Environment
    The fundament of the Indonesian Constitution is the idea of Pancasila, which is embedded in the preamble and contains, inter alia, principles like the “unity of Indonesia” or “social justice”. Hanitzsch summarizes the five principles as “unity in diversity”. These principles trace back to 1945 and the first president Sukarno, who wanted to prevent Indonesia from becoming a conservative Islamic state. However, it’s this idea of Pancasila, which allows authorities bringing still defamation charges to the courts (Freedom of the Press 2015). Theoretically the Indonesian Press Law respects the right of the press and the public to information (Article 19: 2015). In the constitution of Indonesia, freedom of expression is stated. However, these rights can be obstructed through the accusation of defamation or blasphemy. The justification of this restriction is that “prohibition of blasphemy is vital to protecting religious harmony” (Freedom House 2015) which is important for maintaining “unity”. This concept of “harmony” within ethnic plurality can be found in several Asian countries e.g. Singapore. Limits to freedom of expression concern in particular the cyberspace: The Information and Electronic Transactions Law gives authorities the power to penalize digital expression. Furthermore, Freedom on the Net (2015) complains about the Supreme Court, which “upheld a Ministerial Regulation on ‘negative content’, passed without legislative review, which gives officials the power to block websites”. The threat of online observation was also mentioned by the Indonesian communication scholar Masduki who was interviewed for this entry: “It limits the journalist to write down their story because that could be a danger for their position” (2016).

    Regarding regulation, the print media are controlled by the press council, while broadcast media must be licensed by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology and the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI). “Both the press council and the KPI appear to operate for the most part independently” (Freedom House 2015). Licensing is an important issue for radio stations in Indonesia: There are hundreds of community radio stations, which work mainly illegal because they don’t have an official license. According to the Freedom of the Press Report (2015), the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) has called for legal reformation and criticized the “lack of transparency and fairness in licensing decisions”.

    Media Ownership
    Lack of fairness is also an issue when it comes to media ownership structures in Indonesia. These structures are an important element to understand the country’s media system: The power of private media is rising and so called media tycoons “tend to dominate the whole media system” (Masduki 2016). Hanitzsch (2016) even speaks about “Mexican conditions” to illustrate the far-reaching political interference of media owners. „Everybody who wants to hold an important political office will sooner or later operate with media property to get there”, he said in an interview. At the same time, it can be dangerous for journalists to get in the way of the powerful by reporting unpleasant stories. Especially environmental topics can be risky if they interfere with cooperation interests (BBC 2014, Hanitzsch 2016, Masduki 2016). As Masduki outlines in his analysis about media conglomeration and political intervention during the general elections in Indonesia, editorial independence is threatened by “political intervention from mass media owners” (2014: 8). Masduki explains that with the ongoing liberalization, also the political intervention of media owners does increase. “There are close connections to the existing government officials”, he says, especially during election campaigns this fact carries weight.

    That’s why voices in Indonesia get stronger to fight for a public service broadcaster, which “deserves this name”, in order to “break the entanglement between media ownership and politics” (Hanitzsch 2016). Obstacles on this way are the lack of corresponding support within the legislative and the fact that such a venture runs counter to the interests of the well-connected media owners, who are not willing to share the market with a public player.

    Trade unions and associations
    There are several trade unions for journalists in Indonesia, but according to the former journalist Masduki “they do not play a strong role” (2016). The Indonesian Journalist Association, for example, can’t be seen as an independent organization since it had and still has close ties to state officials of the authoritarian era. On the other side, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) is namely independent but said to be “limited to develop the ethical teaching of its member.” They focus on how to manage the professionalization of the journalists by offering seminars and workshops. According to Masduki, the organization has no political access: “They have no power in front of the media owners to give more freedom to the journalists”. Nevertheless, it is very common to be a union member as a journalist: in the Worlds of Journalism Study (2012-2015) 70 per cent of the interviewed journalists indicated that they belonged to a job-related organization or association but only 12 per cent said that they trust trade unions.

    Unlike trade unions the Islamic associations have “traditionally a strong impact on political life” (Hanitzsch, 2016). With 40 million members, the Nahdlatul Ulama movement (NU) is the biggest Islamic organization in the world. According to Hanitzsch “attempted political interference comes now and again from that direction”. One former president, Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001), belonged to that movement, which shows its closeness to the ruling elite. Graf (2009) speaks about “content-related pressure on media coverage from certain religious circles”.
    Media offers and media usage
    Media access and usage
    The media access, especially online, requires a differentiated consideration. There is a huge gap within the Indonesian society regarding online access. Even though social participation is very lively (estimated 64 million Facebook accounts, 20 million Twitter users, and 5 million active bloggers), the total internet penetration remains under 30 per cent of the population (Freedom on the Net, 2015). The main reason is the Country’s geography, which consists of 17.000 islands and leads to a strong concentration of the population on the major islands Java and Sumatra. Because the smartphone use is increasing, the low internet penetration can be relativized to a certain degree. Freedom on the Net (2015) finds that “the internet is transforming the social and political landscape in Indonesia.” The BBC (2014) claims, that “a survey has described Indonesians as the world’s most active users of Twitter.” Nevertheless, regarding media consumption, urban centers like Jakarta and islands with weak infrastructure and poor living conditions do naturally differ strongly from each other. This affects particularly quality newspapers’ usage. Large parts of their circulation are falling only into urban areas, above all Jakarta. These national daily newspapers have a very low circulation: in the year 2000 the total circulation was 2.1 million (Graf 2009: 919). According to Hanitzsch (2016), “they are not read by ordinary people but from a narrowly tailored elite”. The geographical fragmentation seems to lead to a more local orientated press usage, which applies as well for broadcasting. Television has by far the highest media penetration in Indonesia, followed by internet, radio and newspaper (Statista 2014). Due to the historical late literacy of the population (Graf 2009: 917) television and radio are very important above all in the rural areas. Compulsory education in a greater extend was introduced only in the 1970s, which Graf sees as reason for the significant higher structural distribution of radio and TV. Also gender specific distinction could be monitored (e.g. newspapers are more read by men, while magazines have a more female readership), which Graf explains by the poor access to education for women in the past decades (ibid.).

    National media market and key media
    Television is Indonesia’s dominant medium (Freedom House 2015, BBC 2014). Even in the “New Order” period Television was the medium, which was controlled best by the center of power (Graf 2009: 923). The state-run TV Channel is today as it was then: TVRI (Televisi Republic Indonesia). It is the only channel, which is allowed to broadcast nationwide. Nevertheless, Hanitzsch evaluates its popularity very low: “It’s mainly Hooray-reporting. People anticipate it as governmental channel, even if officials do not interfere a lot with the content anymore. But you don’t get a lot exciting to see there.” In 1988 private television was introduced with five new licenses. Since the liberalization there are about a dozen national commercial networks, each with multiple transmitters (Graf BBC). Looking at the following numbers, the local fragmentation becomes obvious: there are more than 100 local TV stations and more than 700 local radio stations (CIA Factbook, 2016).

    The TV landscape resembles the North American model. Few commercial networks are very present, dominant and most influential (Hanitzsch 2016). Graf exposes the problem of conglomeration too. The diversity of private suppliers can’t be seen necessarily as counterbalance to political interests. Political, economic and media interests were often interlinked and organized by (local) elites, which are active simultaneously in all of those fields. This tendency is a considerable threat for the freedom of the media. Masduki (2014) puts it into concrete terms: “the media industry in Indonesia is oligopolistic and owned by 13 large conglomerate groups which are mostly politicians. (…) For Indonesia, the best example of media conglomerate is Bakrie group. It is led by prominent businessman, Golkar party chairman, and the former coordinating minister for people’s welfare, Aburizal Bakrie. He owns two national television channels (…) and also has coal mining, plantation, oil, property, and telecommunication interests”. The largest conglomeration is Gramedia Group, which is owned by former journalist and Christian media tycoon Jakob Oetama. Part of his empire is the national daily newspaper with the largest readership: Kompas with a circulation of about 523.000 copies (Kuipers 2011). The newspaper derives from the Christian community and is still Catholic-Javanese-Chinese dominated. Its editorial line is said to be orientated towards conflict avoidance (Graf 2009: 919). In order to proof independence in reporting, the paper tries not to take sides in advantage of e.g. catholic topics (Hanitzsch 2016). It focuses on macro issues and rarely cover corporate news (Irwansyah 2011). However, Gramedia Group has linkages to diverse industries like the hotel business, super markets, insurances, banks, advertisement agencies or mining companies (Graf, 2009; Masduki, 2016), which can be seen as a restriction regarding journalism autonomy and the possibility of independent reporting.

    As important platform for the Muslim community stands the daily newspaper Republika, which is “widely read by intellectual Muslims” (Irwansyah, 2011). The weekly magazine Tempo stands for in-depth stories, investigative journalism and idealism. It follows the role model of the US Time Magazine (Hanitzsch 2016). Important for Indonesia as business location is The Jakarta Post (published in English). It is read widely by expatriates and business people throughout the region and around the world, mainly online. Further conglomerations are Lippo Group, Jawa Pos and Media Nusantra Citra, each of them consisting of several media outlets with high circulation and owned by one person (Irwansyah 2011). Foreign media is significant in the movie industry as the Federal Foreign Office of Germany outlines (2016): next to popular domestic production, movies from USA, Korea, India, Japan and China are particular successful. International TV networks like BBC, CNN, Bloomberg TV, Al Jazeera and Channel News Asia have correspondents stationed in Jakarta (Irwansyah 2011).
    Journalists' autonomy
    Working Conditions
    Working conditions for Indonesian journalists are poor because of low-paid salaries (Masduki 2016, Freedom of the Press 2015, RWB 2016). This makes them vulnerable for bribery and “envelope journalism”. Receiving money in return for positive coverage or non-reporting is commonly practiced. Masduki claims that “most of the journalists are involved in a little bit of corruption.” Bad wages are also the reason why most of the journalists work only for a short term in that profession. Masduki: “They see it as a job for a temporary time but not for the long run or for the whole life.” That explains why journalists stay in their profession only eight years in average, whereas in Germany or the US the average is about 20 years (Worlds of Journalism 2016). Consequently, journalism is a job you do when you are rather young (average 34 years) and at the beginning of your working life. The majority of journalists in Indonesia hold a university/college degree (87 per cent, Worlds of Journalism). Nevertheless, Masduki complains about the “low-professionalism”, which refers especially to ethical standards (see “corruption”) and the fact that many practitioners come from various disciplines without journalistic knowledge.

    Besides obstacles concerning the individual level like salaries, journalists facing also pressure on their concrete work: on the one side from politicians and on the other side from media owners. Both sides can be the reason for restriction and self-censorship. Either because some economic interests from the owners could be concerned or ethnical/religious irritations are avoided. Masduki: “Journalists have to be careful to write down about conflicts between two religious communities. There is a law that journalists don’t talk about racial, ethnic or defamation issues.” And Hanitzsch: “To express oneself about the prophet of Islam will often have consequences.” Like in many transitional states, the working conditions have changed since the democratization. The interviewed journalists in the Worlds of Journalism Study perceived change especially in the more competitive situation, in the importance of audience research or the raise of educational demands. In contrast to the “New Order” period journalists indicate to have more freedom to make editorial decisions and to start practicing in a more Western way.

    Journalists’ role perceptions
    Indonesian journalists indicate as most important for their work to “educate the audience”, to “report things as they are” and “to promote tolerance and cultural diversity” (Worlds of Journalism 2016). The last statement is unsurprising since national unity is one major national ideal. Almost everybody (99 per cent of 661 asked persons) agreed that journalists “should always adhere to codes of professional ethics, regardless of situation and context” (Worlds of Journalism). Not to cross an imaginary ethical line, is one form of self-censorship (the Indonesian language even has a word standing for inappropriated reporting: SARA). Hanitzsch sees self-censorship as a cultural component in Indonesia, even though many Indonesians are not aware of that. According to him respect towards authorities and persons with higher social status is very important within the Indonesian culture. Journalists want to keep social peace. What one calls “self-censorship” would be labeled in Indonesia as “appropriate reporting”. Likewise, Indonesian journalists would rather not confront politicians with misconduct directly but use third parties or subtler ways. Hanitzsch refers to cultural theory and names this issue “lack of emancipated values”.

    However, when asked about their role perception themselves, Indonesian journalists give similar answers as their Western colleagues (Hanitzsch 2006: 182). The closeness to Western concepts results out of an “imported professional journalistic ideology through US reference books and so on” (Hanitzsch 2016). But this should not detract from the fact that Indonesian journalists have blind spots in their self-awareness, for example, regarding obedience of authorities. Hanitzsch: “They calibrate themselves inside a restricted system in a way, which leaves them with the feeling that they are relatively free.” Despite the Western influence, Indonesians do differ strongly in their reporting practice. Unlike Western journalist they would not take into consideration to use confidential business or government documents without authorization or claiming to be somebody else. They also classify their autonomy far beyond their German colleagues: 38 per cent stated that they are free in selecting the news story they work on, whereas in Germany twice as much journalists have this impression (Worlds of Journalism).

    Reputation of media and journalists in society
    The reputation of the profession depends strongly on the employer and the medium for which one person works. Journalists who work for renowned papers such as Tempo or Kompas “belong to the intelligence-elite of the country” and their salaries are above average (Hanitzsch 2016). To be a journalist does not automatically lead to more respect in the perception of the society. Conversely religious associations like the NU have the tendency to blame the media for negative social trends like moral decline, corruption, drug abuse, hedonism or liberalism (Graf 2009: 917). The reputation of the media is therefore occasionally under attack from that direction. Hanitzsch reports of incidents in which mobs and radical Muslims were protesting against reporting, occupying TV stations or inflaming editorial offices. On the other side it is different: as an institution “religious leaders” have the highest credibility and journalists trust them far ahead politicians, the courts, the police or the military (Worlds of Journalism). Due to the awareness of “envelope journalism” in the society, Masduki (2016) evaluates that people read political stories in a critical way: “they don’t directly trust a story, they try to find out the other side. For that reason, people compare and debate online about that issue to make a crosscheck.”

    Interviewed experts

    Related Links
    Recommended citation form
    Natalie Berner: Indonesia. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date)

    Indonesian family on the road

    Contact the author:
    [contact-form-7 id="58" title="Contact form 1"]