Political culture and media in post-Suharto Indonesia
post-template-default,single,single-post,postid-21097,single-format-standard,theme-bridge,bridge-core-3.1.6,woocommerce-no-js,qodef-qi--no-touch,qi-addons-for-elementor-1.6.9,qode-page-transition-enabled,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,qode-title-hidden,columns-4,qode-child-theme-ver-1.0.0,qode-theme-ver-30.4.1,qode-theme-bridge,qode_header_in_grid,qode-wpml-enabled,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-7.6,vc_responsive,elementor-default,elementor-kit-41156

Political culture and media in post-Suharto Indonesia

Shops looted and goods burned on the streets in Jakarta, 14 May 1998.
Photo: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Freedom of expression through media has been important to the reformation agenda in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto’s New Order in 1998. This article examines how this plan has been working, tested, challenged, and sustained under Joko Widodo’s administration, whose political agenda has a strong vision of the need for the state’s presence with public accountability. Accordingly, media and public participation are regarded as close partners of Jokowi’s public policy for transparency and commitment to democracy, social justice, and supremacy of the law.

Patrimonial hegemony is regarded as a theoretical framework for studying political culture in relation to post-Suharto Indonesia, since it discourages transparency and public accountability in governance. In Southeast Asia, patrimonialism has been historically predominant in political culture for centuries (Brown 1994, 209, Bertrand 2013, 28, Budd 2004, 7). The fall of Suharto in 1989 was not followed by restructuring Indonesia towards the formation of civil society (Fukuoka 2015, 88-9), which would have deconstructed the dichotomy of a patron-client system between political economic elites, priyayi, and ordinary people, rakyat-kawula.

Free media and the press have been playing an active role in shaping and developing this civil society with the dissemination and production of fair and open information. To a certain extent, Indonesian media are expected to preserve and conserve local culture for the unity in diversity of a country with more than 300 ethnic groups, languages, customs, and traditions. Historically speaking, the press and media in this archipelago have been considered the messengers of national unity in diversity; the sense of an Indonesian nation-state has been literally established with the use of Indonesian language by press and media since Dutch colonial times.

After the fall from power of Suharto, the relationship between media and the government is getting better in terms of freedom from censorship, intervention, and infringement. Investigative journalism is growing significantly in the country besides open public debates on various political and economic issues beyond parliamentary sessions. All this is made possible through the reformation of the political system from an authoritarian to a democratic presidential system.

However, despite transformations in the governance system through democratic public election processes, free press and media are less effective in dealing with public disclosure in cases concerning the abuse of power by public officials. Lack of evidence in terms of information from government sources becomes one important reason for publicly exposing such cases.

Media predicaments

This article does not intend to divulge cover ups for the abuse of power by public officials, but simply to unveil the predicaments of media concerning freedom of information. In Indonesia, the cover up of the abuse of power by public officials is considered a practice of collectively forgetting that has been chronically experienced as a political habit. The root of such a habit is mainly cultural, in that the pride of government, kewibawaan pemerintah, is important for the unity and harmony of Indonesia as a nation-state.

Culturally speaking, public officials are not public servants but the patron of ordinary people, priyayi or orang besar. The process of political reformation since 1999 has not yet transformed the political culture from patrimonial governance to one of democratic administration. Since then, the cultural gap between the political elites and the ordinary people, rakyat, remains unchanged. Maintaining the good image of the government has been perceived as cultural preservation for the integrity and harmony of the nation-state. Culturally speaking, any flaw or defect in the government is considered a danger and a threat to the well-being of the nation-state as a psychological concept (Suryadinata 2015, 176). From this perspective, the purpose of a cover up is commonly understood as any necessary measure carried out in the name of national unity as well as maintaining Indonesia’s self-pride in the eyes of the world.

Under Suharto’s New Order, such measures were collectively shared by the state security forces as the justification for action against political opponents or those affiliated with any political movement against the status quo; communism and democratic liberalism were perceived as the most dangerous threat to Suharto’s New Order regime. Even though post-Suharto Indonesia has been perceived as a new era with a free press and democratic governance, the Indonesian population as a whole is still not ready for an open and democratic society: seniority, oligarchic elitism, and patrimonial leadership are still in demand and valued as a political way of life.

Democracy does exist in the public election process. Democracy is still a work in progress in the daily business of politics. What media people can expect from this epoch is not free from their personal privilege in relation to political and business elites. In other words, the transparency and public accountability of the government in regard to its plans, actions, and policies are not legally bound to be shared with the public.

The post-Suharto press and media have enjoyed freedom in terms of being free from government censorship, but this does not mean they are meeting responsibilities to guard and support democratic control of the government. There are still challenging issues concerning the effectiveness of the media and the press for a democratic Indonesia. The Indonesian political culture of patrimonialism still discourages media people from seeing the whole picture of issues, constraints and opportunities of a case because they do not have access to complete information at the hand of the public office.

Despite the democratic process, the government plays the role of patron while the people are at the government’s clients. Patrons are those who control access to resources − money, materials, information, and labour − while clients are people who are do not have any political influence and do business to manage, transform, and transport the resources for production and services. Culturally speaking, the media and press in Indonesia are the clients of the patronage system of government.

In this traditional framework, the freedom of press for reporting and opinion is not fully experienced because it is necessary to comply with local cultural courtesy. This predicament includes the necessity for being proper in communication either through written, spoken, or body language; all this is locally conceived as tata krama. In doing so, access to information from the government’s side has been always subject to courtesy and personal relations to key persons in public office. To a certain extent, the source of information remains anonymous and the most common reason cited is the disappearance of information from the public archive.

Don’t shoot the messenger

One study is focused on the publication of Haris Azhar concerning his exclusive interview with the Kingpin Fredy Budiman; Azhar is the leader of the NGO Violence against Humanity and Missing Persons or Kontras. The communication took place in 2014, prior to Budiman’s execution on July 28, 2016 in Nusa Kambangan.

Haris Azhar disseminated his interview with the drug-lord Fredy Budiman via social media: “Bad Story of a Bandit”. Azhar learned from Budiman about the involvement of high ranking police and military officers in the drug trafficking business. After the interview went viral on social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, he was asked by a number of high ranking police officers to prove his statements. Budiman told Azhar to investigate the involvement of police officers in the drug business as indicated in Budiman’s defence in court. Azhar and his colleagues could not find the defence report on the Supreme Court Website, nor was he able to get a copy of the report from the court. Eventually, the State Police, the State Narcotics Agency, and the Army issued Haris Azhar with a summons for defamation.

Based on Azhar’s interview, people became aware that the war against drugs in Indonesia is political rhetoric because drug lords have been working together with public officials smuggling ecstasy pills from China. Besides the involvement of public officials, Azhar also identified the way law enforcement tracks drug trafficking from international distributors to local warehouses. The trick is to catch the delivery man before reaching the warehouse so that people never know who is behind this line of distribution. In other words, law enforcement officers do not take their job seriously. They pretend to prevent the drug trafficking but what they actually do is cover up the men behind the distribution of drugs.

Azhar is considered a courageous person who has reliable contacts and information concerning those who were involved in the narcotic business. In response to Azhar’s report, President Joko Widodo instructed the Chief of State Police, General Tito Karnavian, to establish an independent team of investigation. The team consisted of 18 members, selected from human rights activists and academicians. The task of the team was to verify and examine all information in the Azhar interview with Freddy Budiman. Meanwhile, the State Police cancelled their investigation regarding Azhar’s alleged defamation (The Jakarta Post 2016). The question is why Ashar did not go to the media to publish his interview?

Even though the public does not have any questions concerning the credibility of the team and its work, people have been sceptical about the follow up of the investigation report. The team found indications of a fund transfer from Freddy Budiman’s associate, Chandra Halim, to a state police officer (Okezone.com 2016).

During past administrations, similar investigations have been done by credible teams, but the actions that followed were swept under the carpet. Most recently, the investigation report concerning the murder of Munir, a human rights activist and former leader of an NGO for missing persons (Kontras), has gone missing from the government’s archive under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The former administration did not follow up the case after the report was submitted in 2005. When the public asked the government to reopen the case, the files were not available. All this is not surprising in Indonesia. The patronage of government discourages transparency and indiscriminate access to information.

No real right to information

Although the 1999 law guarantees and endorses journalists’ right to seek information, it does not include a provision for state elites to share information and be accountable to the public at large (Romano 2003, 131). There is legally no obligation for public officers to share information with journalists or the public. The other thing that matters for freedom of press in post-Suharto Indonesia, is the fact that media and public information have become an integral part of capitalistic and oligarchic business. Broadcasting and print media are under the control of private enterprises affiliated to other commercial businesses (financial, real estates, forestry, manufacture, retails, transportation etc.).

This means that journalists are not able to be independent in reporting and publishing their findings and opinions because they have to contend with the interests of stakeholders in the media company. On the other hand, journalists are necessarily careful to see the big picture of any issue they work on because their bosses may have a client-patron relationship with public officials. Accordingly, media in post-Suharto Indonesia are not fully independent in their function and role in relation to freedom of information. Their voices are mostly under the control of big capitalist magnates and businessmen who are directly and indirectly affiliated with certain political parties (Ida 2010). From this situation, we can understand why Haris Azhar does not publish his report and interview with Budiman in the country’s regular print and broadcast media.

People’s trust in Joko Widodo’s leadership has been challenged by the way his administration treats and handles Azhar’s information concerning the abuse of power by state police officers in the drugs trade. The president has to deal with the status quo of the state police who have enjoyed untouchability since the Suharto era. Corruption and misuse of power among police officers are well-known practices in Indonesia, consequentrly people do not trust them. To reform and transform the state police from its unsympathetic image to a standing that is trustworthy and professional requires a radical change in corporate culture. ν


Bertrand, Jacque. 2013. Political Change in Southeast Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, David. 1994. The State and Etnic Politics in Southeast Asia. London & New York: Routledge.

Budd, Eric. 2004. Democratization, Development, and the Patrimonial State in the Age of Globalization. Lanham – Boulder – London: Lexington Books.

Fukuoka, Yuki. 2015. “Demystyfying People Power, an Elite Intepretation of democratization in Southeast Asia.” In Routledge Handbook of Southeast Asian Democratization, by William Case, 85-101. London & New York: Routledge.

Ida, Rachmah. 2010. “Reorganization of media power in post authoritarian Indonesia, Ownership, power, and influence of local media entrepreneurs.” In Politics and the Media in Twenty-First Century Indonesia: Decade of Democracy, by Krishna Sen and David Hill, 13-25. London & New York: Routledge.

Okezone.com. 2016. Propam Tindak Lanjuti Temuan Aliran Dana Rp668 Juta ke Perwira Polisi. 16 September. Accessed September 16, 2016.

Romano, Angela Rose. 2003. Politics and the Press in Indonesia: Understanding an Evolving Political Culture. Abingdon Oxon UK: Routledge.

Suryadinata, Leo. 2015. The Making of Southeast Asian Nations: State, Ethnicity, Indigenism and Citizenship. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

The Jakarta Post. 2016. Kontras calls for new probe into Freddy Budiman’s case. 13 August. Accessed October 12, 2016. 

Bagoes Wiryomartono (PhD) is independent scholar and currently on leave Faculty Member at the School of Design, University of Pelita Harapan, Karawaci Tangerang Indonesia. He earned his doctorate in architecture and urbanism from Aachen University of Technology in 1990. Germany. He was a Postdoctoral fellow for architecture at the East West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii and Fulbright scholar at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C, USA. The area of specialization of his teaching and research experience is focused on history, theory, and design of urbanism of various cultures and traditions in Southeast Asia and North America. He was a senior lecturer at the Bandung Institute of Technology (1981-3, 1993-2002), and visiting research associate at the Asian Institute, University of Toronto Canada (2003-5).

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.