Despite receiving limited local media coverage, these two local cases became a national sensation through social media channels such as TikTok. Bima and Syarifah leveraged the platform to voice their criticism of leaders that they considered corrupt.
The failure of local media — mainstream media outlets that operate in regional Indonesia and cover local stories, including legacy outlets and online-only new entrants — is largely due to their co-option by local political elites. The number of media outlets in Indonesia grew exponentially after the fall of former president Suharto in 1998, reaching 47,000 outlets in 2018. But the local media has failed to transform into an effective fourth pillar of democracy or to scrutinise the politically powerful.
In the early years of the reformasi era, many local elites purchased or founded local newspapers to support their candidacies in local elections. As a result of digitalisation, a score of Indonesian local newspapers died out. Some of those that managed to survive were drawn closer to local governments and politicians for fresh cash.
One example of the deep media co-optation by local elites is evident in a case from Riau Province in March 2023. Media personnel were observed having a vacation abroad with the province’s elites. Though this story was exposed by a pseudo-media account, it received minimal attention in the local media. While it is difficult to verify the story’s validity, the high frequency of local media officials meeting with local elites raises legitimate concerns.
While most local media outlets have been co-opted by the powerful, a minority have opted to become watchdogs. But the decision to bark criticism at local elites is not usually driven by a pure intention to offer public interest journalism. Local outlets often adopt critical stances because they either do not receive a sufficient share of the pie from local governments or are simply not influential. The personnel of these media outlets often use the media to extort government officials, from governors to village heads.
The number of scandals and corruption allegations involving local governments provides ample material for these ‘critical media outlets’ to exploit in exchange for economic incentives. Sometimes local media outlets do transmit critical news, but this typically occurs when the news has already gone viral on social media or been reported by national media outlets.
The mass media’s co-option by the politically powerful not only earns the media bad press, but also reinforces the idea that journalists are untrustworthy. This has contributed to the rise of pseudo-media accounts like Berita Jambi and Partai Sosmed on social media. These accounts disseminate ‘news’ for primarily economic purposes as seen in their profiles which usually advertise that they are open for paid endorsement.
Though many of the administrators running these accounts lack journalism skills or certifications, they gain far more active engagement than local media profiles. They also regularly receive videos from the public highlighting the problems faced by ordinary Indonesians, filling the void left by the absence of investigative reporting by local media outlets.
The presence and popularity of pseudo-media accounts has been a matter of great concern for local media outlets. These pseudo-media accounts regularly take news directly from the traditional media websites, sometimes even copying and pasting stories.
The viral phenomenon of exposing local leaders in Indonesia for corruption or misbehaviour on social media is undoubtedly a failure of the media in its role as a guardian of democracy. But the rise of pseudo-media accounts as a replacement for local media outlets is a problematic solution. These accounts often do not meet journalistic standards nor have ethical frameworks to guide them.
The economically opportunistic nature of pseudo-media accounts gives local politicians more options for co-opting critical voices. Across regional Indonesia, some local leaders have attempted to co-opt several accounts, with some of these attempts having already come to fruition.
The Indonesian government must regulate pseudo-media accounts. They should be barred from distributing news on social media, whether they seek the news themselves or take it from local media websites. They must also be required to pay local media outlets if they republish their content.
It is also crucial that the local media find ways to sustain their operations that do not depend on local government money. Providing high-quality journalism with high ethical standards and pursuing alternative funding sources such as subscriptions or crowdfunding should be high priorities.
The government should also ensure that only outlets verified by the national press body (Dewan Pers) are allowed to operate. Local media outlets are easy to set up and those without a Dewan Pers verification certificate operate freely across regional Indonesia.
Without these efforts, Indonesians living in the periphery will continue to be left behind while the fourth and fifth pillars of democracy work for elites and not for them.
Muhammad Beni Saputra is a PhD student at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.