In the midst of a normal broadcast day on Tuesday, about 30 Indonesian officials burst into the studios of Radio Erabaru, trailed by dozens of press. After breaking into the station’s transmission room, the officials walked back out with key broadcasting equipment, despite failing to give any warrant authorizing this seizure to the station’s personnel.
The Sound of Hope affiliate Radio Erabaru has broadcast in Indonesian and Chinese from the island city of Batam for six years, but since 2008 the Indonesian government, which was initially supportive of the station, has sought to shut it down.
The station’s staff say the turnaround was inspired by the Chinese Embassy in 2007 sending a letter to several Indonesian government departments and embassy officials paying a visit to the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission. The embassy called for the radio’s broadcasts to be terminated, lest China-Indonesia relations be affected.
The raid was conducted by officials drawn from the police, the military, the local Frequency Monitoring Agency, and the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission, according to Raymond Tan, the station’s associate director, who related what happened that day in a telephone interview on Thursday.
The officials claimed the station had to be shut down because its broadcasting was disrupting the air traffic in the nearby city-state of Singapore.
When Tan, Gatot Machali, the radio’s executive director, and five others at the station tried to explain that the station was operating legally, the authorities simply darted for the transmission room with one of them trying to break the door’s padlock with a hammer.
"Gatot and I tried to stop them from hammering the door," Tan said. "But they forcibly opened it using the tools they brought and took two things from the transmitter, one was exciter and one was the audio processor," two pieces of equipment needed for broadcasting.
Devastated to see their six years of work going down the drain, Tan and Machali rushed outside, hoping to stop the authorities’ cars from driving away, only to find themselves helpless and outnumbered.
While the Indonesian officials held a piece of paper in their hands that they said justified their actions, no copy of it ended up in the hands of Tan or Machali.
"We are very sad. We cannot accept this in a democratic country," Tan said. "If Indonesia is a country with law. I think the government should respect the law. They have to respect the law. … We are not breaking any law."
The Indonesian government had previously reassigned Erabaru’s frequency, 106.5, to the station Sing FM. That station, which had been broadcasting on 105.5 FM, transferred to 106.5 immediately after the raid.
Allowing the Sing FM broadcasts on Erabaru’s former frequency calls into question the claim that Erabaru’s broadcasts interfered with air traffic in Singapore.
"You have to prove that [the air traffic interference] really happened," Tan said. "It’s not just who said, who complained. We have been broadcasting for so many years that there’s no such thing happened. If there’s an air traffic disruption, why is Sing FM broadcasting on 106.5?"
Unconvinced by the air traffic explanation, Tan and his colleagues believe that the forced closure has deeper reasons.
Erabaru’s broadcasts, 30 percent of which are in Chinese and 70 percent in Indonesian, reach a large ethnic Chinese population in nearby Singapore, 150,000 ethnic Chinese on Batam, and heavy freighter traffic, including many Chinese ships, in the nearby sea lanes. Radio Erabaru carries reports on the human rights abuses committed by the Chinese regime against Falun Gong adherents, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and others inside China, which greatly annoys China’s communist regime and most likely explains the embassy’s attempts to close the station.
Only after the embassy’s intervention in 2007 did Indonesian authorities in 2008 deny the station’s license, reassign its frequency, and begin a process of other bureaucratic restrictions. In March 2010, a similar raid with broadcasting equipment taken away was carried out by officials who said they were acting because Erabaru did not have a permit to use its frequency.
"I think all these things happened because of the Chinese communist regime," Tan said. "If it wasn’t for the intervention from the Chinese regime, it wouldn’t have happened like this today. We feel that is very unfair. The government should not listen to the Chinese communist regime, as Indonesia is a democratic country. It should have its own dignity and own ruling."
"We had been broadcasting from 2005 and we had everything—equipment, manpower, program. Everything was there. … There’s no reason that they were not issuing us a permit," said Tan.
Despite the 2010 ransacking of the station, Tan and his colleagues repurchased their equipment and were able to continue with their broadcasts. They have sued the government and are waiting for a decision by the Supreme Court. With the Supreme Court not having decided, they were surprised to find authorities in their station again a few days ago.
"We thought this time [since] we were appealing, so they wouldn’t do anything to us," Tan said. "That was what we thought, so we weren’t prepared. Because the case was still under appeal, they wouldn’t take any action to close down the radio station. We did not expect that they came on Sept. 13."
If they win the case, Radio Erabaru would be able to get its 106.5 FM frequency back, but in the mean time, Tan said if they continue their broadcasts, Erabaru will have to share 106.5 FM with Sing FM, which would cause mutual interference.
"The most important point is that the court cases should stay in the court, authorities should not take any actions to shut the radio station down," Tan said. "From what we understand is that they have to wait until the court has the verdict, otherwise they are just not respecting the law here."
In the most recent case involving Erabaru, a court noted that the station had been treated differently by Indonesian authorities.
On Sept. 6, Machali was convicted of operating a radio station without a license, receiving a suspended six-month jail term with one year of probation, along with a fine of 50 million Indonesian rupiah (US$5,800).
The decision in his case noted that it had been proven in court that there are many radio stations in Indonesia broadcasting without licenses or frequency permits. While they also break the law, they are not charged by the authorities, according to the decision.While the staff at Erabaru were surprised by the raid, Tan found out that other radio stations and media outlets were informed in advance of the plan by the government. The news appeared on the front pages of several newspapers the next morning.
The radio station’s closure has been condemned by Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House, with both linking the Indonesian government’s actions to pressure from the Chinese regime. Freedom House called on the Indonesian government to protect freedom of the media and information in Indonesia and allow radio stations such as Radio Erabaru to broadcast without "fear of closure or retaliation."
With additional reporting by Mimi Li.
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