Dishing the Dirt in Jakarta

Times Staff Writer

The gossipmongers staked out the courtroom, waiting for the beautiful young actress.

After testifying as part of her divorce from a shaggy-haired pop singer, the starlet emerged and confronted the media horde. Before she could utter a word, her brother-in-law grabbed the spotlight, eagerly recounting sordid tales of what a terrible wife she had been. Cameras whirred as tears welled in her eyes.

By next morning, when the first of the day’s celebrity gossip shows hit the air, the footage had been cut for maximum drama. Heart-wrenching music played as clips of the couple’s happier days were spliced with slow-motion scenes from the courthouse. Over it all, a host breathlessly served up rumors as fact: She threw the ring in a fountain in a fit of rage! She tore up the wedding vows and tossed them in his face! He’s had an affair!

Hollywood? No. Jakarta, capital of the world’s most populous Muslim nation.


While perhaps common fodder elsewhere, celebrity gossip programs have emerged as the latest fissure in the delicate convergence of Islam and still-infant democracy in Indonesia, where moderate religious leaders are straining to keep extremist voices at bay.

“We are freer today than ever before ... but it’s as if we’re in some euphoric state. It’s too much,” said Arswendo Atmowiloto, a longtime television producer and media consultant. “I’m worried. These shows are part of something much larger.”

The growth of the celebrity gossip shows has been explosive. Since 2000, the number of episodes aired each week has increased nearly ninefold. Today, viewers can choose from more than 13 hours of daily chatter about the latest high-wattage marriages, breakups and scandals. Some shows offer three different episodes a day.

For many in Jakarta, where a struggling middle class separates extreme wealth and abject poverty, the shows offer a break from monotonous and un-extravagant lives.

On a recent morning, Juliana Hasibuan woke before sunrise for morning prayers. After cooking a simple breakfast of fried rice for her family and cleaning her modest concrete house, she tuned in to “Go Show,” one of the three infotainment shows she typically watches each day. She sat on a thin, worn mattress on the floor pushed up against a bare wall marked with dirt stains. Mosquitoes buzzed about the stifling room.

“I like to see their lifestyles and what they’re wearing. When I see friends, we talk about the gossip,” said the 35-year-old mother of two, who is married to a construction specialist in the army. “Of course I want to live like them, but that’s just imagining. God has given us what we are, and the reality is I am the wife of an army man. I will never be a celebrity.”

Such escapism is far from harmless in the eyes of the country’s Muslim religious leaders. After discussing the gossip shows and other programs that trade on people’s personal problems at a meeting in July, top figures in Indonesia’s largest Islamic group, Nahdlatul Ulama, declared them forbidden by religion. The group is now finalizing a fatwa, or edict, ordering the organization’s estimated 40 million followers not to watch.

“In Islam, we believe in every human’s dignity, and these shows are an offense to that,” said Masyhuri Naim, an Islamic scholar who chaired the committee that came out against the programs. “If someone makes a mistake in their lives, we have to help them fix it instead of exposing it -- especially when we are terrorizing people like they do on these shows.”


But given infotainment’s popularity and profitability for television networks, Naim acknowledged, it will be difficult to persuade people to stop watching.

“We can only deliver the message,” he said. “If you do good things, you will go to heaven. If you do sinful things, you will go to hell.”

The friction comes at a delicate time for moderate religious groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama as they face challenges to their sway from a growing conservative Islamic movement.

The majority of Indonesia’s estimated 190 million Muslims follow a moderate brand of Islam, and the country is governed by secular, not Islamic, laws. But more radical voices have made inroads in recent years.


Local terrorist cells with ties to Al Qaeda have carried out a series of deadly bombings. Officials in more than a dozen communities throughout the country have imposed strict measures fashioned after Sharia, or Islamic law. And when a tame Indonesian version of Playboy magazine appeared here this year, the radical Islamic Defenders Front, which has also denounced the gossip shows, led an attack on the magazine’s offices that left windows smashed and forced staffers to flee the city.

Politicians have reacted to the pressure. Lawmakers are debating a sweeping anti-pornography bill that would outlaw, among other things, kissing in public and suggestive dancing.

The fuel feeding these undercurrents has come, in part, from the expansion of media outlets in Indonesia. Today, for example, viewers can choose from 10 privately owned national television stations as well as local channels -- double the options available when dictator Suharto, who kept tight control of the media, was ousted in 1998.

Amid fierce competition for ratings and an expanding amount of airtime, station owners are pandering to people’s desire to gossip about the rich and famous.


“It’s good money, it’s easy money,” said Ade Armando, a member of the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission. “Just send the cameras out, chase a celebrity and fill the airtime.... It is merely a business.”

Episodes for “Insert,” one of the most popular gossip shows, cost only about $1,400 to produce and take in about $28,000 in ad revenue, said the show’s producer, Zudarlis “Fifi” Elfira.

But in the race for profits and ratings, the line between fact and rumor often gets blurred. At the peak of the gossip over the actress’ pending divorce, gossip show hosts reported that her husband was gay, a claim he has denied. Later reports insisted he had had an affair with a woman.

“Eventually, we find out that 99% of the gossip we report is true,” Elfira said.


Mainstream journalists chafe at the shows’ dubious standards, which they say provide ammunition to religious groups and do damage as news media struggle to assert their rights in a country still adjusting to a free press.

The authority of the broadcasting commission to impose sanctions on the gossip shows for low journalistic standards has been stripped by the government’s Ministry of Information and Communication, Armando said. The ministry has assumed control of licensing and passed regulations favorable to the profit-driven TV stations, many of which are owned by politically connected businessmen, he said.

Elfira, who described herself as a non-devout Muslim, defended her infotainment industry against the attacks. She dismissed the claim that she was doing harm in sharing with the masses the stories of celebrities’ heartbreak and infidelity. Plus, she added, it’s what the people want to see.

“It’s booming because people are tired of watching politics and other serious things,” she said. “Watching these kinds of shows, you don’t have to think.”


For their part, Jakarta’s celebrities are hardly innocent victims. They grant interviews eagerly to infotainment reporters, hoping to promote their latest endeavors and, more often than not, themselves. The half-truths and inaccuracies, it seems, are a part of the deal. Even when things turned ugly at the courthouse, Dewi Persik, the 20-year-old actress, was torn between the allure of the cameras and the invasion of privacy.

“It’s a consequence of being an artist,” she said later that day between takes on the set of the television drama she stars in. “People want to know more and more about every aspect of celebrities. I can only say, ‘I thank God that people want to know more about me because it means, I hope, they love me.’ ”