A Well-Connected Pundit
Media This Week
13 July 2000
Seven years ago Wimar Witoelar became one of then president Suharto's most prominent critics by accidentally stumbling into a career as a television host. He was working as a business consultant when an executive of Indonesia's second largest commercial TV network, SCTV, asked him for some advice on how to financially restructure the channel. "I told him that if you put on a good talk show, like Larry King Live, I'd watch it all the time," recalls Witoelar.
The executive asked him who in Indonesia could do that. "I could," replied Witoelar who, to his surprise, was asked to write a one-page proposal for a new talk show, which he called Perspektif. Soon after, he was invited to the studio, where he remembers asking the station's program manager American Larry Mathis, who had formerly produced Johnny Carson's Tonight Show in the US whether he was there to film a pilot.
"No, we'll put it on the air," Mathis said. "I've been 30 years in the talk-show business and I know a talk-show host when I see one." Witoelar is what Australian broadcasters call "great talent" the kind of interviewee interviewers love. He has an opinion on almost everything, speaks in pithy sound bites and paints refreshingly simple word pictures an ability the sometimes mystical Javanese are not noted for. In recent years Western journalists have beaten a well-worn path to his door. As students have rallied and presidents fallen, his chubby features have become the international face of Indonesia. Audiences from London to New York have seen him almost bursting from their TV screens, quipping and joking and trying to make sense of the latest twists and turns in Indonesian affairs.
Things have quietened down a little now, but back in May 1998 he was really in demand. President Suharto had resigned and B. J. Habibie was about to take over. Tensions were high and international TV networks had set up satellite links on the roof of the Mandarin hotel in Jakarta. "I'd go up to the roof [to do interviews] for Dutch TV or the ABC or CNN or CNBC or something. When the peak came, I counted I did 21 interviews in one day." He also recalls doing several others for radio and newspapers. "People ask me, 'Why do you do it?' I say, 'I don't know, it's kind of like extreme sports.' "
In Indonesia, Witoelar is a household name. He now has another weekly TV talk show, Selayang Pandang (At a Glance) broadcast across the country on the Indosiar Network; in 1997 and 1999 he was elected the most popular TV talk-show host, and then there's the weekly radio show that he runs broadcast on 60 stations. Plus, he has a weekly column in Kompas newspaper and TV viewers can catch him hosting major events such as the broadcast of last year's presidential elections. Last month he had the job of compering a conference of lobby groups in Bali and presenting the resolutions which were critical of President Abdurrahman Wahid directly to the President live on national TV.
He's also part of the online world, via a small shareholding in Indonesia's major news portal, detik.com and an English-language business website, ibonweb.com. During Media's interview in Melbourne, Witoelar's mobile phone rang. His Jakarta office was ringing to say Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, Indonesian Sea Exploration and Fisheries Minister, was chasing him after Selayang Pandang had aired the night before with criticisms of the Government. "He's desperate," says Witoelar with a cheeky grin. "He's a member of the cabinet we will have to reshuffle." For a former political radical, Witoelar is well connected. As a student leader in the 1960s he was instrumental in founding Golkar, the party that went on to dominate Indonesian politics and supported Suharto throughout his 32-year reign. His brother is a former secretary-general of the party, his sister-in-law is Housing Minister and Sarwono the subject of the mobile phone conversation is a very close friend, despite Witoelar's attempts to unseat him.
"Yes, he is a friend," says Witoelar. "The reshuffle is not personally directed at Sarwono, but he will still have to go nevertheless." In 1970 Witoelar was preselected for a seat in the Indonesian parliament, but chose to study in the US instead. There, he was influenced by the anti-Vietnam war movement and became a committed liberal. Returning to Indonesia as an academic, he remained an activist, and spent a month in prison in 1978 for opposing militarism and supporting the student movement. In 1993 he took his politics to TV as host of Perspektif. But like most of the country's media before the Asian financial crisis, SCTV was partly owned by members of Suharto's family, so speaking out against the regime was risky. Witoelar strategically invited prominent thinkers and activists, such as future president Wahid, on the show, but not to talk about politics. Wahid is a sports fan, so Witoelar talked to him about soccer instead. Suharto's name was never mentioned, but astute viewers could pick up subtle references and metaphors, which spoke volumes about current affairs.
"We never interviewed any government people. At one time [Suharto's daughter] Tutut asked to be interviewed, but I didn't return her call," he says. "We used words with hidden meanings and talked about corruption and militarism, usually using metaphors. When we mentioned [Haji] Harmoko the information minister I would smirk . . . I would pretend to forget bad guys' names." It was a distinctly Javanese way of dealing with media repression, but in September 1995 the fun ended after the show featured a series of anti-establishment figures. During an interview with prominent journalist and champion of press freedom Mochtar Lubis, somebody in the government Witoelar doesn't know who called the station's management and ordered the show off the air. But the show didn't die. Spurred by public demand and plenty of marketing, Perspektif LIVE hit the road as a monthly theatre event, playing to packed houses across the country. The program was adapted for radio, and although it was initially banned in several cities, it is now broadcast on 60 stations throughout Indonesia.
In 1997 he was back on television with Selayang Pandang, which throughout the Habibie period presented "some heavy-duty political stuff". For a short while there was another show, too, Dialog Aktual (Current Dialogue), which Witoelar describes as "very serious, discussing what to do about bank recapitalisation and what to do about legal reform". It is commonly believed that Habibie was tolerant of the media during his short term as president, and didn't ban any media outlets. But Witoelar suspects this isn't true. In 1999 Dialog Aktual was closed down mid-show. Witoelar says the chop came during a prerecorded program about the Indonesian National Security Act. "Maybe it was Habibie, maybe it was the army, but somebody called. At the 17th minute it just went blank. It created a minor controversy because the station explained that the videotape was defective, but when experts came up and analysed it, it didn't show any signs of a defect." So what does Witoelar think of the new media environment in Indonesia? How free and fearless is it?
He says the media is now experiencing "pent-up energy after 32 years of repression", and believes it is time for it to get serious about the job of contributing to the building of civil society. Instead, he says the media is engrossed in a competitive game of "sound bite versus sound bite" journalism and is offering shallow coverage of unfolding events. He points to two big challenges facing the Indonesian media. The first is resolving who owns what following the Asian financial crisis, which left virtually all the major networks effectively bankrupt. Many of the stations are now controlled by the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency, which controls many billions of dollars worth of bank-owned assets and is due to hold auctions for the networks in the next couple of years. This massive redistribution will probably lead to foreign ownership and further rationalising of Indonesian TV. Witoelar describes it as a period of "survival of the fittest".
The other challenge, he says, is to professionalise the media. "Indonesian journalists have always worked at a high standard, but haven't been properly compensated. People doing the same work in a bank get a much higher salary. In the past it used to be seen as part of the consequences, because reporters are sort of like freedom fighters; you fight for glory, not for money."
He believes that increased competition by new media, especially online news outlets, mean journalists are suddenly in demand, and will finally be ble to secure professional conditions. Although it is widely accepted that Indonesia's media environment was repressive, Witoelar offers an interesting spin. "The Suharto period was a great time of preparation for the Indonesian press. How to work under duress, under stress, how to manoeuvre themselves politically, how to remain true to their integrity." The task, says Witoelar, is to move forward and create a new identity for the media in a democracy. "This is what I see as the challenge after Suharto for the media."