JAKARTA (Reuters) - Poking fun at Indonesian politicians would have been unimaginable a decade ago, but a local television show in which actors play government leaders is breaking taboos in the young democracy and winning audiences.
Media freedom in Indonesia has come a long way since mass protests in 1998 ended the iron-fisted rule of former president Suharto, whose government severely shackled the press.
“We are free but now it is up to us to use this freedom,” said Effendi Gazali, a media professor at the University of Indonesia who helped devise the twice weekly shows — “Republik Mimpi” (Republic of Dreams) — and who also appears on them.
Gazali, who said he had received death threats over the show, was inspired by learning that many Americans got their political information from Jon Stewart’s political parody “The Daily Show”.
The series — originally called “Republik Benar Benar Mabuk” (Drunken Republic) — was launched two years ago and has a format consisting of a panel of look-alike politicians in front of a live audience lampooning the nation’s leaders past and present.
So, one character is based on former president B.J. Habibie, an engineer who was famously obsessed with turning Indonesia into a technological powerhouse. Another portrays former president Abdurrahman Wahid, who in real life was often seen nodding off in meetings and who spends much of the show dozing.
“Republik Mimpi” also mirrors elements of the British TV series “Spitting Image” launched in the 1980s that used puppets to mock establishment figures from royalty to Margaret Thatcher.
While not as biting as most western political satires, partly reflecting a Javanese tradition of respect for authority figures, the series has upset some in the establishment.
In March, local media reported the then information minister, Sofyan Djalil, accused the show of giving “negative political education” and threatened to report it to the broadcasting commission over complaints he said he got from the public.
“Republik Mimpi” often grabs laughs at the expense of the perceived prickly relationship between President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general who is sometimes seen as indecisive, and his outspoken vice president, Jusuf Kalla, who is widely expected to run against him in the 2009 election.
Yet the show tends to shy away from going for the jugular, often simply playing up personal traits in politicians or fairly gentle parodying.
“Probably we can call our program the most polite political parody in the world,” said Gazali.
The actor who plays the president, or Si Butet dari Yogya as he is known on the show (the same SBY initials as Yudhoyono), said the real president had no problem with the show.
“I believe that a show like this has a big role in educating people in democratic values — at least we can ask them to always be critical when dealing with life,” said the actor, Butet Kartaredjasa, relaxing after a Sunday night show. Wearing a traditional black Indonesian hat, round glasses and a brown shirt, he looked uncannily like the real president.
Agus Apriyanti, a student from Bandung Islam University, who was in the audience for a recent “Republik Mimpi” airing, said the show worked because it “used simple language so that people can understand the real political situation and press freedom.”
“They use satire and it goes straight to the heart,” added the 20-year-old journalism major, who wore a Muslim head-scarf.
Alongside media freedom gains and an explosion in the number of publications and TV programs, there have also been setbacks.
In particular, activists say flaws in the legal system have sometimes allowed unwarranted cases to be brought against the media, threatening freedom of expression.
Time magazine was recently ordered to pay over $100 million (48 million pounds) to former leader Suharto in libel damages after the Supreme Court overturned two lower court rulings in the U.S. weekly’s favor.
Janet Steele, an associate professor at The George Washington University who has closely tracked the Indonesian media, said via email the media faced ongoing problems of a weak legal system and a general lack of understanding among judges of press laws.
Although optimistic about media freedom overall, she said that another chilling effect came not from authorities but from hardline Islamic or nationalist groups sometimes intimidating or physically attacking Indonesian journalists for supposed slurs.
“Republik Mimpi” tries to take on serious issues and Sujarwo, the actor portraying the vice president, with his trademark moustache, said he believed it had an important role to educate.
The wife of a murdered human rights activist took part in a recent show, explaining how a campaign to win justice for her dead husband was proceeding.
“So far, the press has been extraordinarily supportive,” Suciwati, whose husband Munir Thalib was poisoned on a flight to the Netherlands in 2004, told Reuters after her appearance.
Prosecutors are trying to overturn a Supreme Court move to clear a key suspect, who has been linked to the state spy agency.
The show has also taken on issues such as deadly flooding in the capital Jakarta, partly blamed on incompetent bureaucrats.
Despite its brushes with authorities, a number of politicians including the vice president have appeared on the show, but Gazali said he recognized a need to keep some distance.
“We don’t want to be close to the government, to the establishment. Because we know exactly that this is the kind of program that should maintain credibility.”
Additional reporting by Mita Valina Liem, editing by Megan Goldin