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To Bangkok Conference programme

65th IFLA Council and General

Bangkok, Thailand,
August 20 - August 28, 1999

Code Number: 049-107-E
Division Number: V
Professional Group: Acquisition and Collection Development
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 107
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Current publishing and information trends in Southeast Asia: Indonesia
Freedom of the press

Oliver Mann
National Library of Australia
Regional Officer - Asia Jakarta, Indonesia
Kingston, Australia


The resignation of President Soeharto in May 1998 has been followed by freedom of the press, resulting in a huge increase in the number of newspaper and serial titles in Indonesia despite the economic crisis. The book publishing scene has also witnessed dramatic change. The author discusses the implications of these profound and rapid changes for the acquisition of Indonesian publications.


Newspapers and serials

In the days immediately following the resignation of President Soeharto in May 1998 there was a great feeling of uncertainty in the country with regard to the currency of official regulations and unwritten restrictions which had characterised the 32 years of Soeharto's New Order.

In fact the last six weeks of Soeharto's rule were frequently criticised in an unprecedented fashion by a press emboldened by the rising tide of popular resentment. After the resignation, and in the current transition phase, the press has capitalised on its interpretation of what it can get away with and has continued on its crusading path. 1999 is regarded as the second year of true press freedom after the first in 1945 when Indonesia declared its independence.

It is openly critical of the government, the President, and his Ministers in a daring style that would have been met with a severe official response a year ago. It is making the most of what was initially feared to a "Prague Spring" in Indonesia but has thus far survived and flowered.

At the beginning of last June, two of Indonesia's best-known news weeklies, Tempo and De Tik, which were banned in 1994, took advantage of the current climate of freedom to announce that they planned to resume publication despite the fact that they were still officially banned.

They have reappeared and remained despite apprehension that the economic crisis in Indonesia would curtail their activities, for the economic crisis in Indonesia has affected newspaper, magazine and book production.

Last year we were frequently told that two-third's of the country's 286 newspapers and magazines were on the brink of bankruptcy, victims of the high price of newsprint, the plunge in the value of the Rupiah, scant advertising and falling circulation.

In fact, not many titles have folded, and the market has been flooded with new titles - many of them being sensational topical weeklies which may not endure - for times are tough in a tight market, and there is only so much news to be reported and analysed.

Nonetheless, despite the pessimistic predictions, in the 10 months from May 1998 to March 1999, the Department of Information issued 740 new press licenses (SIUPPs), and 40% - or almost 300 publications - are reported to have started appearing on the news stands. At the time President Soeharto resigned there were only 289 press licences in operation. What we are witnessing in Indonesia today is a huge increase in the number of publications, and an unfettered freedom in their content. This two-fold proliferation is taking place both in Jakarta and the provinces - there is a noticeable shift away from the previous concentration of publications sourced mainly in the capital and the island of Java.

This proliferation in press publishing was initiated by a crucial milestone which was reached on 5 June 1998 when Minister of Information Yunus Yosfiah removed a controversial press regulation enacted 14 years ago which gave the Minister the right to revoke publishers' licences. The government's power to revoke licences was widely acknowledged as a major obstacle to freedom of the press in Indonesia. Although there was no official censorship, publishers frequently had to suppress or alter news and exercise self-censorship in order to avoid censure.

Following his appointment as Minister of Information by President Habibie, the Minister undertook to respect freedom of the press which he views as crucial to democracy and an important instrument in bringing an end to KKN - Korupsi, Kolusi, Nepotisme (Corruption, Collusion, Nepotism) - now regarded as hallmarks of the Soeharto regime.

Yunus Yosfiah has honoured his word by easing restrictions and simplifying licensing procedures for the press, eliminating all fees to obtain licences, deregulating radio news broadcasting, easing controls on the private television stations, and pledging that the state-run television network TVRI will become more independent and less prone to government interference.

Thus, the Minister believes that freedom of the press is essential for the nurturing of democracy in Indonesia, and that the quality of the national press will improve with increased competition.

Ten months after these profound changes the Minister of Information has not changed his mind on the matter. Some legislators are critical of the press for being too free, too liberal in their reports. But the Minister believes the press has not over-stepped its boundaries, and that he would prefer "newspapers without a government to a government without newspapers".

There is an ironic twist to all the new-found freedom: with the easing of restrictions, some publications now find that they have to redefine their identity. The weekly news magazine D&R is the best case in point: it was one of very few publications that dared to be a frequent critic of Soeharto, always pushing the limits of official tolerance. Now its solo voice is merely part of a chorus. Articles that until recently D&R would have been usually alone in featuring about corruption and the abuse of power are now regular fare in every publication.


The more liberal attitude towards the press has also manifested itself in the book publishing world, though of course it is just as exposed to the economic crisis, and in a sense even more so, because of the higher cost of books. Production costs have risen while peoples' buying power has plummeted.

One interesting trend that has emerged is the publication of a steady stream of slim monographs, known as "buku cepat" or quick books, most of which are critical of the current or previous regime. Books of this nature and on the topic of reform sell well, particularly now that they can be sold openly in bookshops. There are a few reasons for this trend to slim publications:

  • the high cost of producing more substantial works in difficult economic circumstances (for example, the cost of paper for printing books rose three fold in one year.)
  • cheaper publications are likely to sell in larger numbers.
  • a rush of enthusiasm to publish now that there is freedom of expression after three decades of control.

But it is still a challenge for publishers to survive in the tough economic circumstances that beset Indonesia at present. IKAPI, the Indonesian publishers' association, has 600 members, only 10% of whom are currently producing new books. Approximately 20% of its members have suspended operations, and many others are only reprinting titles that were successful sellers in the past.

Other publishers have responded in different ways. Mizan is a publisher which in the past had mainly concentrated on Islamic publications. It has now broadened its field, and very successfully, into the reform area. It sponsors seminars of this nature, and publishes the papers and proceedings. Mizan is one of several publishers which have capitalised on the freedom of expression and the popularity of the reform theme.

Challenges in acquisitions

Curiously, the ramifications of these new era developments have presented new challenges to the National Library of Australia's Indonesian Acquisitions Program.

The impact of the economic crisis on the publishing industry means that it is more difficult to publish books, and those titles that do succeed are appearing in much smaller print runs. Consequently, despite greater freedom it is now more of a challenge to acquire Indonesian imprints, both from the government and commercial sectors.

Other challenges in Indonesian acquisitions include:

  1. The structure, or rather the lack of structure of the Indonesian publishing industry. For the National Library of Australia to acquire a consistent flow of quality Indonesian publications it needs to have a representative in Indonesia to actually identify, pursue and coordinate their acquisition.

  2. The National Bibliography is out of date by the time it appears, so it does not really assist in acquiring publications. Because of small print runs, particularly at the moment, acquiring a title that is more than six months old is very difficult.

  3. New publications are erratically announced or advertised, if at all, and certainly not government publications.

  4. Newspapers , serials and books published in the provinces are very difficult if not impossible to obtain in Jakarta, thus necessitating travel to acquire provincial publications, where a surprising amount is published. Thus, the industry is characterised by small, localised print runs across an expansive archipelago of 6,000 kilometres.

  5. Serial titles that come and go - particularly in recent times with the flush of enthusiasm for "reformasi." Pursuing missing issues of serial titles is one of the most difficult and time-consuming tasks in Indonesian acquisitions.

  6. The importance of contacts when acquiring government publications. The first challenge is to find out what is being published and then a reliable supplier with initiative is needed.


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