The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, December 20, 2005



Indonesians often criticise the Western media for base standards and publishing pornography, but the accusation is laden with hypocrisy. Duncan Graham reports on an Indonesian exercise in double standards:

When it comes to lurid layouts, the front page of Surabaya’s Memorandum deserves a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

While most newspaper editors think three or four stories with maybe a couple of photos are enough, the staff of Memo are distressed unless they’ve managed to shoehorn in at least 15. Plus a dozen pictures, three or four graphics and a cartoon. Then toss in a handful of advertisements.

Woops, we forgot the reverse blocks, multiple fonts and colors – green, yellow, blue and red. Lots of the latter, and for good reason as the photos are usually a gore fest. Britain has its yellow press, but East Java has what locals have dubed Koran Merah – the red paper.

The result is a dog’s breakfast. But apparently it’s what the readers like. Every day about 60,000 copies are sold making Memo the second most popular daily in Surabaya. The first with 300,000 copies across the province is Jawa Pos, which also owns Memo.

Jawa Pos is the sort of paper Dad can bring home and leave lying around for the kids to thumb through. If he did the same with its sister rag his reputation would be in tatters. So would his marriage.

Many Western countries have their gutter press. The term ‘tabloid’ doesn’t just refer to the page size – it also infers a down-market product. But few have anything quite like Memo and its equivalents in the other major towns.

“You’ve heard of the Infotainment industry? Well, we’re into Crimotainment,” said deputy editor Suyono. His paper’s masthead carries the motto: ‘Working and struggling for the country,’ but the copy below tells of brutal rape, machete murders and dirty doings in the kampongs.

“We’ve surveyed our readers and we know what they want. Their number one choice is crime, number two is mystery followed by sex. After that it’s sport and local politics. The average reader is male, over 25 and with a high school education or below.”

Memo has been around for 23 years and has a staff of 70 journalists – almost all men. It seems to be most favored by drivers of taxis and pedicabs, day labourers and the apprentice thugs who hang around bus terminals for their work experience. As most copies seem to be pored (and pawed) over by groups, readership must be much higher than sales.

The advertisers certainly think so and rush to fill the gaps between the stories, even though rates for some products and services carry a 25 per cent loading. This is to discourage the more salacious according to Suyono – though the deterrent seems ineffective.

Shy of a massage with Campus Girls or Macho Boys and think phone sex might be safer? Viara is waiting for your call 24 hours a day and this sleepless nymph is just 21. Can you imagine?

Well, you don’t have to because there’s a picture of her, and lots of other ladies, with their mouths open or doing strange things with their hands. Exactly what is difficult to determine because the quality of reproduction and newsprint are so poor.

Think you’re not up to the occasion? Turn the page and there are more ads for ‘man oil’ and other ‘vital’ medicines, including ‘Sta-Erect Plus’ which is said to be imported. From the decadent West, of course.

There are even titillating products for madam. Creams, ointments and pills to give her the décolletage on display in Mexican sinetrons.

The inclusion of these ads reinforces Suyono’s claims that 40 per cent of readers are women. If so they must be browsing behind closed doors because flaunting a copy in public would be sending some very obvious signals.

Djoko Tetuko, who heads the paper’s Ombudsman team, said his job was to check that copy follows guidelines and ethics. Stories had to be balanced and accurate.

British tabloids have Page Three girls thrusting their buxom assets, and the broadsheets occasionally have nudity in context. But most Western newspapers draw the line at corpses believing such pictures show the pornography of violence, let alone invading privacy and distressing relatives.

In Australia last month several police officers were disciplined for e-mailing colleagues gruesome photos of two men who died in the desert.

Tetuko said this illustrated the problems with defining ‘pornography’.

“The regulations have changed since the fall of the Suharto government,” he said. “Advertisers get letters from the police to say their copy has been approved. We follow the law. We have very few complaints.

“We show respect for the dead, and we do not pay the police to get the pictures. We don’t show bare breasts. So we have ethics, right?”

Perhaps it’s cultural prurience and what seems (to Westerners) to be upside-down censorship: Do ageing blokes in need of ‘man oil’ really prefer mangled cadavers, severed heads and montages from the morgue to a pretty girl in a bikini? The nearest Memo gets to showing intact flesh is on its Artist page where alleged celebrities pose provocatively in clothing that covers almost everything bar arms and ankles.

The best revealing displays are in the underwear departments of Indonesian shopping malls, though the models always seem to be white skinned and blue-eyed. Maybe this is the reverse of the Western racist syndrome where toffee-nosed magazines run photos of topless Africans but keep Caucasian nipples under cover.

The other component of Memo is mystery. “We’re a superstitious race,” said news traffic manager Hery Setiawan who deals with the paper’s regional stringers. These are the reporters who talk to the wide-eyed who claim to have been chilled by spooks, had weird encounters with the netherworld and confronted phantoms rising from graveyards.

As an intelligent man did he believe the black magic stories? “Well, the people interviewed certainly do,” he replied.

Suyono said circulation was increasing. “I don’t think sales will go down as the population gets better educated,” he said. “Our only competitors are the police reality shows on TV. As long as we have corruption and an economy in crisis we have no worries.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 20 December 2005)