Media Convergence in the US and in Indonesia: A Talk with Uni Lubis
As a veteran journalist who is now Chief Editor of ANTEVE, Uni Lubis thought she knew quite a lot about the media business. Yet halfway through the 7-week fellowship with the Eisenhower Foundation that is taking her across the United States — meeting with fellow journalists, academics, politicians and enterpreneurs — Uni is learning much more than she expected.
The focus of her study? Media convergence in the age of digital media. In an age when traditional media businesses are trying to redefine themselves through digital outlets, and when news companies are increasingly being sold to conglomerates, this topic could not be timely. And as a member of Indonesia’s National Press Council, Uni felt it is her duty to help find answers to the challenges now faced by Indonesian media.
Uni spoke with The Indonesia Network recently to explain the bumpy path ahead:
Q: Why did you pick Media Convergence as your study focus?
A: Well, besides being a journalist, I head the Association of Indonesian Television Stations, which has 10 members. I’m also a member of the National Press Council, and we are currently discussing the Media Convergence bill, or Undang-Undang Konvergensi Telematika, in Bahasa Indonesia.
We already have the Press Freedom Bill, the Broadcasting Bill, and the Information and Electronic Transaction Bill. Our objective is that, if we really want to establish a Media Convergence Bill, then we don’t need all the other laws, because then all the media becomes one. The internet provides the structure, and the press provides the content.
But now that we have this Media Convergence Bill, everyone, especially those involved in the internet and media, is criticizing the bill endlessly, because the bill talks only about telecommunications, and not about the media, all multi-media.
Q: Do you feel that Media Convergence is a concrete threat against press freedom?
A: I talked earlier with Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach (former Washington Post journalist), who wrote ‘Blur’, and asked them, what is the biggest threat to press freedom? Well, in the era of media convergence, content is produced by big corporations, such as Comcast, which just bought NBC.
In the future, there will be less and less big corporations which can control distribution as well as content. This consolidation has been happening in the last 10 years already, and we can already see the effects. For example, the media started focusing on entertainment, on what the public wants to know, not what the public needs to know.
I also learned that the United States does not like to make laws concerning technology, because technology is always changing. They just make short-term regulations, between the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) or Congress. These regulations do not need to go through a complicated process. I am learning a lot about these regulations.
Regulations impacting technology are very important in Indonesia. For example, ANTEVE is now streaming through the intent, through various channels. So, if, say, one of our affiliates like Vivanews streams our content and it’s problematic, then we will face charges on multiple levels, as a broadcaster and as internet content provider.
The bonus of being here is that while I am learning about making laws, I am also meeting experts of digital media. I spent three days meeting with digital media professors at the Medill School of Journalism in Chicago, and also at Stanford.
Q: What lessons from the US can apply for Indonesia?
A: I learned, what needs to be regulated and what does not. What needs regulation is infrastructure, but not technology. Infrastructure means the networks, the laying down of cables and fiber optics. Other aspects of the industry do not need laws, but simple business regulations.
We have deadlines in Indonesia about television going digital. Here, there are no laws regarding this. Your company goes digital based on its ability to do so. Here, the market sets the rules, so that if your market demands that you go digital, then you will have to follow these market demands.
Content does not need regulation, unless it involves, say, child pornography. The best supervisor of content remains traditional, and that’s the public, but this system does not need to be formalized. For example, these days we get our criticism through Twitter. Social media is much more effective at prompting us to make corrections than traditional media. If our news items get criticised through Facebook or Twitter, we will investigate the issue and recant the item.
Our Press Council should focus on education, not necessarily whether this media has violated regulations or not. There are no sanctions anyway at the moment, all you have to do if you violate the rules is say sorry. So the sanction of social media is more scary. When we read on Twitter people saying, oh your questions are so stupid, we take this criticism very seriously.
Q: What are the threats to the media in Indonesia?
A: One of the biggest threats is the intimidation and interference a media company can get from its owners, who are increasingly big corporations. Another threat is intimidation from the public, such as protesters coming from your office demanding a retraction. This is already happening in Indonesia. The first threat will happen to Indonesia too.
Indonesia is a country that still likes to make laws. So even though we are in the era of takeovers by big corporations, we can still make laws that will ensure freedom of expression and freedom of creation. We should learn the trends happening in the United States, because whatever happens here, will likely happen in Indonesia five years down the road.
Q: And how have these takeovers impacted American media?
A: The Americans I’ve talked to have said, on principle, they do not like these take-overs. But they also say that they had hoped initially that the take-overs would improve the quality of production. And the technology part of it, for the most part, has gotten better. There is much more capacity for going digital. But the content is not improving. For example, the US was subject to non-stop airing of the royal wedding, and that is strictly a profit-oriented decision. The bosses were hoping for content that is easy to sell, not content that may be more beneficial to the public.
And look at Fox News. They produce mostly talk-shows because talk-shows are cheap! As a result, other networks like CNN follow suit, and what you get are shows with people yelling at each other. It’s not necessarily beneficial to the public.
Q: What about positive examples from the US that Indonesia can emulate?
A: Number one, media literacy. People are much more media literate here. And media literacy should be one of the top priorities of the Press Council and the government. Instead of focusing on regulations, the government should focu on media literacy. In the US, media literacy is part of the education curriculum. In Indonesia, it is not. Rather than make threatening regulations, the government should work on educating the public. Media literacy is also the responsibility of the private sector. Companies can incorporate media literacy programs into their Community Service Programs (CSR).
A second lesson we can learn from is the ethical code here. The US media is quite strict in adhering to their code of ethics. For example, the Bin Laden story. I asked fellow journalists here, if they get a video of Osama Bin Laden, what do they do? Their answer: only the pictures would be aired, not his voice declaring jihad. In Indonesia, that’s the part we would play over and over again! Here in the US, there is still consideration towards an item’s impact on the public. There is still discussion in the newsroom about why we should broadcast a news item, and what benefit would it serve the public. Journalists and editors here still ask, what is the good in this? In Indonesia, we just think about ratings!
It seems that here, this code of ethics is already ingrained. Education likely plays a part. In Indonesia, many of the working journalists are journalists because that’s the only work they got.
Q: So you have learned quite a lot during your time here.
A: Well, I learned while I am here that I still have a lot to learn. Engagement with the audience is something I still have a lot to learn. American media takes this engagement very seriously, they do a lot of research on what it is audiences want to see and hear about. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, ratings for TV news are all falling.
Q: Why are ratings declining?
A: Because we think that what the audience wants to see is violence. We think that they want to watch people fighting. But we learned from the Japanese coverage of the tsunami, that Japanese television showed not one single body. In Indonesia, we even provoke the victims, and ask them, please cry. We exploit pain and suffering. Here, they may also exploit suffering but they will also show the optimism in a situation. They will show that although there is a disaster, not everyone is suffering.
In Indonesia, I am one of the people guilty of exploitation. If there is a disaster, we exploit it. If there is conflict, we push them to have more conflict. And if there is any happy news, like the one of that Indonesian soldier who became famous dancing on youtube, we exploit it endlessly too and air it constantly as if there is no other news.
Indonesians often wonder, why is Indonesia always depicted as an unstable place, prone to bombs going off? Because that is what we like to exploit: the bomb attacks, the political demonstrations and protests. As a result, the outside world also thinks, these are the biggest concerns in Indonesia. When in fact, it is not necessarily true.
Dimuat di website The Indonesia Network, 13 Mei 2011.