Indonesian Radio Station Pitches in for Complex Battle
A small group of dedicated Indonesians has for years stood off attempts by China’s totalitarian regime to shut down a radio station it has run in its own country. Though the Indonesian Supreme Court recently decided a case in the station’s favor, it still faces a protracted battle ahead.
On Aug. 29 the Supreme Court declared that the authorities were wrong to have given the frequency for Radio Era Baru (the name means “new era”), 106.5, to the station Sing FM. The broadcasting authorities did this in 2009, Era Baru executives say, as a way of shutting them down under pressure from the Chinese regime.
The Supreme Court decision should theoretically have paved the way for Era Baru to get back on the air.
But soon after the court decision was handed down local bureaucrat Mohammad Sopingi, chief of Batam Radio Frequency Spectrum Monitoring Center (called simply “Balmon” by locals), declared that Radio Era Baru would not being going on the air.
He also told a reporter with the Jakarta Post that he had not heard of the Supreme Court verdict, and, “We will take action against Era Baru Radio if it dares to broadcast again without a permit.”
How does a single official, in a regional office of a government agency, contradict a decision by the country’s highest court?
“It’s also confusing for us,” said Ade Armando, a professor of communications at the University of Indonesia. Armando maintains a energetic presence on the Internet, gives public lectures regularly, and is popular among the country’s youth.
“It is really sad that this kind of person can say they don’t know that the Supreme Court has issued this decision. He has to know, but he says ‘I don’t know.’ That’s a terrible thing about our bureaucracy,” he said in a telephone interview.
Lying behind the confusion is the complexity of how frequencies and licenses to broadcast are administered, how approvals are given out—or not—and how the grey zone created by Indonesia’s sometimes dysfunctional bureaucracy allows for seemingly arbitrary decision making and enforcement, in this case to the detriment of Radio Era Baru, at the behest of Beijing.
Radio Era Baru’s troubles began in 2007 when the Chinese Embassy sent a letter to the Department of Foreign Affairs, copied to the National Intelligence Agency, and other bodies, warning of damage to relations between Indonesia and China should Era Baru continue to broadcast.
Era Baru broadcasts in Indonesian but also in Chinese, meaning that it reaches the large population of ethnic Chinese living in Indonesia—a population the Chinese regime seeks to influence—and the heavy Chinese freighter traffic in the nearby sea lanes.
Era Baru’s programming includes reports on human rights abuses in China and political developments in China. It regularly broadcasts as a serial The Epoch Times editorial series “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party,” which gives an uncensored account of the nature and crimes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Since the embassy sent its letter, the station has faced a series of shutdowns, equipment confiscations, court cases, and for Gatot Machali, the director of Radio Era Baru, a suspended jail sentence.
The recent Supreme Court decision in effect annuls Machali’s sentence. He was charged with wrongly broadcasting on 106.5 FM—but the ruling indicates that that frequency had been improperly taken from Radio Era Baru and assigned to Sing FM in the first place.
Sing FM is still broadcasting on the frequency, despite the Supreme Court decision. Era Baru will be sending Sing FM a legal letter, explaining the decision, and asking it to relinquish the signal.
One of the pitfalls for Era Baru is the complex process it needs to go through to broadcast in a fully legal manner in Indonesia.
Broadcasters require an approval to broadcast on a particular frequency—handled by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, whose central agency has regional affiliates—and also a license or permit to broadcast, which is a separate process requiring the approval of both the ministry, and the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission, which also has regional units and a central agency.
Sopingi, the bureaucrat that vows to block Era Baru, is the head of the regional Batam office—Era Baru is located on the island of Batam—for the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission. In theory, that agency monitors radio frequencies and ensures that broadcasters are licensed.
In practice, things in Indonesia are much vaguer than that, according to Armando.
“Most of the radio stations and TV stations in Indonesia broadcast their programs nowadays without a formal license. … The majority of them did try to process their license, they went to the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission, they tried to comply with regulations and the law, but most have not received any legal binding license from the government and the commission up till now,” he said.
The grey zone inherent in this process gives bureaucrats discretionary powers that analysts say have been pressed into the service of the CCP’s overseas censorship and propaganda goals.
“Most of them, before this political thing happened, could have their program without any formal license. This problem only appeared when the Chinese government came into it,” Armando said.
Era Baru will now go forth with one Supreme Court decision under its belt and another two pending. They will need to explain to and cajole authorities and Sing FM to let it have its signal back, pressing them with lawyers on the one hand, while appealing to them with the voice of reason and an explanation of its station’s goals on the other hand.
“We hope the local authorities will obey the law,” said Raymond Tan, the director of the station. He said he and his team would not give up.
“I think one possibility is that Radio Era Baru will just keep broadcasting their program without any official recognition from the government,” Armando said, highlighting one in a range of possible outcomes. Things could be tougher if the Chinese regime continues to exert pressure.
“This Era Baru group of people are really full of energy and are very strong in resisting pressure. There is not going to be an easy time for Era Baru. They will still have to fight.”
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