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Suharto bends constitution by returning broadcast bill

Far Eastern Economic Review - September 4, 1997

John McBeth, Jakarta – President Suharto has a host of family concerns riding on Indonesia's first broadcasting law. Between them, the president's eldest daughter, Siti Hardijanti "Tutut" Rukmana, son Bambang Trihatmodjo and Bambang's wife, Halimah, own chunks of four of the country's five private television channels. That's a considerable stake in an industry that now generates $1 billion in advertising revenue annually.

For that reason, it was assumed everything was cut and dried when parliament passed the broadcasting law last December and sent it to Suharto for his signature and promulgation. But, inexplicably, the legislation languished on the president's desk for seven months. And then, in the first such move in Indonesia's half-century of independence, Suharto sent it back for revision.

Parliament was shocked by the president's July move, while legal experts were stunned. "The president is in a very strong position, but in my opinion he can't send back a law which has already been passed by parliament," says constitutional expert Sri Soemantri, rector of Jakarta's August 17 University. The possibility of a constitutional crisis was defused when House Speaker Wahono agreed to reconsider the bill. But the affair was another sign of the two-steps-forward, one-step-back trend that has begun to cloud what many believe are the sunset days of the Suharto presidency.

On August 25, recently installed Information Minister Hartono appeared before parliament to flesh out a July 11 letter Suharto had sent to the house. In the letter, the president had described parts of the new law as "technically difficult to implement." Among the changes the president now wants, and which the private stations had pressed for during seven months of parliamentary hearings, are:

An extension of operating licences from five to 10 years, which executives say is vital for an industry which plans a long way ahead.

The scrapping of a stipulation that limits stations to covering no more than 50% of Indonesia's 200 million population. The restriction was meant to allow for the growth of regional television stations.

The elimination of a provision that would allow state-run TVRI to run public-service advertising. Private channels complain that they already have to pay 12% of their gross revenue to support TVRI's advertising-free programming.

However, family influence clearly has its limits. Suharto suggested no change to a costly stipulation in the new law that all foreign non-English-language programmes must be dubbed into English with Indonesian subtitles.

Nor, apparently, will the administration seek a relaxation of punitive measures, ranging from administrative sanctions to prison terms of up to seven years, for violators of the broadcasting rules. The law's proposal that a government-controlled monitoring body be established was also left untouched, and the industry appears to have failed to win the right to raise capital from foreign sources.

What Hartono did not explain to parliament was why the system of deliberation and consensus which guides the legislative process broke down on this occasion. Suharto's initials were on the draft when it was sent to parliament in March 1996, and legislators say they conferred every step of the way with then Information Minister and ruling Golkar Party Chairman Harmoko.

"We decided it all with the government, that's why it's so puzzling," says H.B. Mabun, vice-chairman of the commission that deliberated the law. "All our discussions were reported to the State Secretariat."

Television executives, who have been operating under temporary government guidelines, are equally baffled by the fate of the bill. "Who in Indonesia knows what Suharto is thinking?" asks one.

When the bill finally made it through parliament last December, Golkar Chairman Harmoko "was very proud of the outcome," recalls Mabun. "He said it was very important to the nation." Now politicians are wondering whether the legislation had anything to do with Harmoko being shunted from the Information Ministry to a newly created "special affairs" portfolio in the wake of the May elections.

Private broadcasters certainly weren't happy with the initial version of the bill. Though they were resigned to the fact that the law had been passed, says the industry executive, "we wanted to see if we could get some flexibility into implementing regulations drawn up by the executive branch." The job of representing the industry went to Televisi Pendidikan Indonesia, or TPI. Its owner, Tutut, is the most trusted of Suharto's children.

Tutut and Bambang have majority shareholdings in TPI and Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia, respectively, while Halimah Trihatmodjo and businessman Henry Pribadi each control a 22.5% stake in Surya Citra Televisi. Bambang also has an interest in Indosiar Visual Mandiri, owned by the well-connected Salim Group. The fifth private channel, Andalas-Teve, is part of the Bakrie Group.

Hartono didn't give parliament a deadline for the law's revision, but for constitutional expert Sri Soemantri, that's not the point. "There's no procedure for parliament to reconsider the legislation because it's already a law," he points out. "This is the first time this has happened and I hope it will be the last time."