Although Indonesia has had a well-deserved regional reputation for press freedom since the fall of Soeharto in 1998 and the subsequent passage of the 1999 Press Law, the implementation of laws on electronic communications have threatened to undermine the independence of the digital media sector.
Indonesia’s media environment is diverse, and independent outlets express a wide variety of views. With the government no longer the primary source of censorship, powerful media companies owned by tycoons have come to dominate the media landscape.
The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology and the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) licence broadcast media, and there are few restrictions on news production and distribution for Indonesians. Foreign ownership of broadcast media is banned under the 2002 Broadcast Act.
Although the independent Press Council is supposed to adjudicate all media disputes, authorities continue to bring defamation charges to the courts. Defamation is an offence covered by more than 40 provisions of the Criminal Code.
Despite the generally positive outlook for independent media, the last few years have seen disturbing encroachments on digital expression. The 2008 Electronic Information and Transactions Law (ITE) contains criminal penalties for those found guilty of distributing, transmitting, and/or making electronic information containing libel accessible to the public. Although the law was intended to regulate e-commerce, it contains a number of vague and imprecise offences with penalties including arrest and detention. Any kind of electronic communication – including social media – is fair game under the law, as are all manner of ‘insults’, including blasphemy.
In November, Muhammad Asrul, a reporter for the Berita News website who investigated alleged local corruption in South Sulawesi, was convicted of criminal defamation under the ITE Law and sentenced to three months in jail.1 Although the Press Council issued a statement condemning the local court’s decision, its competence in this case was denied by the prosecutor’s office, which claimed that Berita News was not registered as a media outlet when Asrul’s articles were published and that this therefore justified them treating the matter as a criminal case.
Equally worrying to civil society groups and advocates for press freedom is Ministerial Regulation 5 (MR5), which was quietly introduced in late November 2020 by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology. The regulation governs the functioning of private ‘electronic systems operators’ (ESOs) accessible in Indonesia, which includes social media, search engines, e-commerce platforms, games, and communications services. It applies both to Indonesian services and platforms and multinational companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, TikTok, and others.
Granting the government authority to regulate private ESO activity, MR5 gives authorities access to user data, and provides for sweeping notice and takedown orders. According to the international human rights organisation Article 19, the regulation ‘introduces excessive penalties for noncompliance, from fines to full shutdown of services in Indonesia’.2
The Coronavirus has affected the overall Indonesian economy, and media have suffered primarily through a loss of advertising revenue. The venerable newspaper Suara Pembaruan stopped its print edition in February 2021. Other legacy print publications, such as Tempo magazine, Kompas newspaper, and The Jakarta Post, have strengthened their paywalls and experimented with a membership model, offering daily newsletters to subscribers.
Social media sites such as WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram are extremely popular among users in Indonesia, with 68% of Indonesians reporting getting their news from social platforms – an increase of 4% over last year. Most Indonesians (83%) report using their smartphones to obtain news, and the use of laptops for this purpose has diminished by 8%.
Our data show TikTok is used by nearly half (45%) of 18–24-year-olds – in December, millions of users saw videos of a volcanic eruption on the island of Java, with images of villagers fleeing smoke, ash, and hot mud.3
Because of the growing popularity of social media as a source of news, much attention has been directed at its role in spreading disinformation, political propaganda, ‘hoaxes’, and hate speech. COVID-19 in particular has led to a flood of misinformation, and it is widely acknowledged that many politicians and party organisations use automated accounts and paid commenters, known locally as ‘buzzers’, to promote their interests.4
In response to concerns about the prevalence of disinformation on social media, Indonesia is home to Mafindo (the Indonesian Anti-Hoax Community), a multi-stakeholder NGO that boasts of having more than 15,000 members. Along with Cek Fakta, a collaborative organisation devoted to fact-checking, Mafindo offers citizens a means of stopping dissemination of disinformation on social media.
Professor of Media and Public Affairs and International Affairs, George Washington University
Online and social media remain the most popular sources of news in Indonesia with our more urban sample, but TV and radio remain important for the millions of people who are not online. The majority of internet news access is via smartphones (83%).
Online (incl. social media)
Pay for online news
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Overall trust in news remains low at 39%. CNN continues to garner the most trust at 66%, followed closely by Kompas (65%). TVOne, which ranks as one of the top two news brands, is at the same time distrusted by a large percentage of respondents (16%), something that might be attributed in part to its sensational style of reporting.