In Conversation with Desi Anwar: The Transition to Democracy and Journalistic Freedom

Posted on 9 June, 2017

With a career spanning over two decades, Desi Anwar is a household name in Indonesia. She is a distinguished columnist, senior anchor, journalist and the host of Insight with Desi Anwar on CNN Indonesia. The AIYA team caught up with Desi to talk about her remarkable homeland.

Source: Whiteboard Journal

In this article, the first in a two-part series, Desi Anwar gives us a unique perspective on journalistic freedom in Indonesia during the Soeharto era compared to now.

Beginning her television career in 1990, during the time of The New Order regime, Desi didn’t just witness the transition to democracy – she was centre stage reporting on it to the nation.

When I began my career, Indonesia only had one television station and the press was very heavily censored. This station was state sponsored TVRI, a public relations tool for the government reporting on development progress and telling good news stories about Indonesia. If you wanted to see the bad news about the rest of the world, you watched Dunia Dalam Berita but on TVRI – only good things happened in Indonesia.

Desi began her career with Indonesia’s first commercial television channel RCTI, owned by the son of ex-President Soekarno, and pioneered the country’s leading primetime news program, Seputar Indonesia.

At the time, Seputar Indonesia was called a “magazine” because we couldn’t talk about the “news”. We couldn’t report on politics or anything to do with religious ethnic and tribal tensions. We focused on the lives of ordinary Indonesian’s, life in Jakarta, macet, the floods and so on. And this is what made the show so popular – Seputar Indonesia was about what was important to the people. It wasn’t about what the government thinks it’s important to you. What people think is important can include economic, social and cultural issues.

Within six months of its launch the show it was a hit – they put towers up all across Indonesia so that the entire country could watch. The show gained such popularity that the government decided that if they didn’t appear on Seputar Indonesia, nobody would be watching them and they would be left behind.

We created a new way of imparting information that had never happened before.

Following the show’s immense popularity, airing four times a day, Seputar Indonesia was invited to do more formal coverage reporting on what the government was doing, they joined Presidential trips and state visits.

After seeing the success of RCTI within the next few years, Indonesia saw explosive growth in the media industry. The nation went from having only one state-sponsored television channel to having five national channels all competing for attention. At the same time, the spread of information grew as more and more Indonesian people were gaining access to new information through free-to-air television.

Over the course of the next eight years, the Indonesian people got used to seeing themselves on television and knowing what was going on around them. In 1998, when the economic crisis hit, Seputar Indonesia reported on the drop in the Rupiah from 2000 IDR to 1 USD to 10,000 IDR to 1 USD. And when the student demonstrations and riots began Seputar was airing it.

I remember one day when the students were standing on top of the Parliament building and the house speaker Harmoko, from the Ministry of Information – then seen as very much a loyalist to Soeharto and the guy who would be calling me to say “you’re not allowed to do that, and you can only do this” – actually convened with the other ministers saying that Soeharto had to step down. We were the only one that taped this.

I remember, the top management team coming down and saying “I got a phone call from the owner of the television station asking – why is Harmoko on my television telling the President Soeharto to step down by Thursday?” And I responded with, “well you know, all this time we had to air everything that came out of his mouth. Well look, I can’t control what came out of his mouth this time, but I still think it’s my duty to air it.” So they couldn’t really say anything.

I came in at a time when Indonesia was very much under an authoritarian leadership, and there was no freedom press until the reformasi in 1998. And this would not have happened without the growth in the television industry.

The point is that for television – Indonesian people felt that they owned the television and felt that they had a right to be getting the up the most up-to-date information.

And that was the process I went through in my work, the process of Indonesia’s democratisation.

I saw the birth of thousands of TV channels, hundreds of local channels, internet websites and Indonesian’s are now most active social media users in the world. Indonesia has one of the freest media across the ASEAN countries. This is something I am very proud to be part of – because it is very much the history of Indonesia.

Because, I think, I was not only in the wings but I was on the stage, sharing in that history and seeing how the nation developed and had grown into what it is now – a vibrant democracy.

I think that a lot of young people take it for granted now that we have many television stations and free press. But it’s not something that was given to us – it was not a right. It was something that we had to fight for, and it was an opportunity. And if we didn’t do something with that opportunity, it would have been a shame – because then Indonesia’s history would have taken a different direction.

In Conversation with Desi Anwar will continue next week as we explore how Indonesians and Australians perceive one another and opportunities for future people-to-people engagement between our two countries.

We would like to thank Desi Anwar for taking the time to speak with us, our remarkable interview team of Cass Grant and Anastasia Pavlovic, and the team at the Sydney Writers Festival for making this interview possible.