Wed, 25 Sep 2002

Querying broadcasting bill

Lukas Luwarso, Executive Director, Press Council, Jakarta

Heated debate on the broadcasting bill, which has lasted about two years, is regrettable but unavoidable, given that so much distrust continues to linger in society. The government and legislature are still absorbed in the old paradigm -- supervise and control rather than regulate -- especially when they feel they have been caught off guard, particularly by the print media.

These parties fear that in the absence of control over broadcasting, the public will be vulnerable to unfavorable influences, not to mention "foreign sources", which could politically and economically undermine Indonesia through the broadcasting media. They also suspect that broadcasting media companies will exploit their programs purely to maximize profits.

Media activists also continue to suspect that anything coming from the government is tantamount to a conspiracy to curtail freedom of expression and silence civil society. Businesspeople also suspect that the broadcasting bill will hamper their investment. Unless a compromise is reached the debate will continue unabated.

Therefore, we should welcome and support the decision of the government and special committee of the legislature deliberating the bill to postpone its ratification. This postponement is particularly based on the desire to publicize the bill better, obtain input from the public and rewrite, if necessary, a number of controversial articles.

The bill was due to be passed on Sept. 23. The delay at least shows an intention to produce a law that can accommodate most aspirations from the parties concerned. Some, however, suspect that the postponement will create an opportunity for lobbying between the government and businesspeople. Lobbying is valid, but it must also involve the public, including the press, so that they can voice their views on issues on which they can compromise.

The three issues widely debated have concerned the authority of the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI), the role of civilian investigators (PPNS) and a stipulation on censorship for films and commercials. Broadcast media businesses have questioned the limitation on cross-ownership and the regulation of the number and scope of national broadcasting areas. The government's concern regards control over frequencies and limitation of direct relays of foreign broadcasting.

At the center of the controversy is mainly the authority of the Broadcasting Commission. Here crucial matters concerning control over broadcasting content, the ground rules and guarantees of press freedom are at stake. It is this institution that will determine the licensing process for frequencies and broadcasting.

The KPI will exercise control over broadcasting content, issue a code of conduct and a code of practice for broadcasters. This institution will also draw up other stipulations and procedures, including revoking and suspending broadcasting licenses. The broad authority that it enjoys and the widespread trauma of anything reeking of authoritarianism, has led some to label it a "monster", a new authoritarian body.

Yet some critics must have read the bill rather carelessly. The KPI is actually an institution with many tasks and functions, but without a clear authority.

The bill rules that the final say of the issuing of a license on frequency and broadcasting management remains in the government's hands because the KPI only gives "recommendations." Therefore, the KPI will have much work, without full authority, on the most fundamental matter: The issuance of a license for frequency allocation and broadcasting.

What must continue to be fought for is KPI's independence and full authority. The reference to "the KPI along with the government" in each article must be scrapped.

The potential that the KPI will turn into an authoritarian body can be prevented by clear rules of the game from the very beginning, including transparent recruitment of its members. Also, the KPI should become a body with heterogeneous membership representing various interests. It would be accountable to the people through the legislature.

Another sensitive issue concerns censorship of films and commercials to be aired by broadcasting stations. As Indonesians are still highly sensitive to anything that smacks of censorship, it would be good to make this provision curative, not preventive.

This means that the censorship agency would take action only after the public questioned the substance of a commercial or a film because of alleged indecency or inappropriateness. There is nothing wrong with trusting the broadcasting media to consider internally what is worthwhile airing before the censorship agency takes action.

Regarding civilian investigators, the bill should confirm that they work under the instruction of the KPI, not just "take into account the opinion of the KPI" (Article 55). They can inspect, stop broadcasting and seal a radio or television station -- only if such actions have been decided in a KPI meeting.

However, compromise should not be sought on the matters raised by businesspeople -- limits on cross-ownership and regulation of the number and scope of national broadcasting areas. Limitation on cross-ownership (Article 17) is important to prevent the media being monopolized by only one business group, as is the tendency today.

As for regulation of the scope of broadcasting (Article 30), the introduction of a network station system has often been misunderstood as "prohibiting private TV stations from transmitting their broadcasts nationwide." It is not efficient for a private TV station to conduct its broadcasting to encompass an area as wide as Indonesia. Private television stations can choose to concentrate on covering only a particular area and then, temporarily, they can team up with other local TV stations for other areas. The regulation is based on the awareness that Jakarta should not control the limited frequencies.

Broadcasting, a public domain, was earlier controlled by the government and was made its instrument of propaganda. A transition to democracy requires a transparent society and a free flow of information. Efforts to control broadcasting democratically can be successful only if such efforts are made openly. But amid all the suspicions, compromise must be sought. The government and the legislature should appreciate that they need not be too enthusiastic in overcoming all "problems" pertaining to the broadcasting media through this bill.

Activists should also refrain from rejecting everything that the government proposes. Media owners, who find the present situation quite cozy, must be willing to be regulated. There are now no rules of the game in the realm of broadcasting, and this cannot continue unaltered.