By: Our Correspondent

A
battle is brewing over an Indonesian television station that highlights
not only the notorious pliability of the country’s legal system but
also marks the re-emergence into the public light of a prominent member
of the family of the late strongman Suharto, who was driven from power
in 1998 in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis.

The
rare and muddy tussle is between downmarket media mogul Hary
Tanoesoedibjo and former President Suharto’s eldest daughter, Siti
“Tutut” Hardiyanti Rukmana, over the legal ownership of PT Televisi
Pendidikan Indonesia, or TPI. The Tanoesoedibjo family’s parent
company, Media Nusantara Citra (MNC), says it controls TPI, RCTI and
Global TV among many other media properties that have made MNC one of
the biggest players in the Indonesian media market.
Suharto’s
children were notorious during the last years of the strongman’s reign
for the depths of corruption that allowed them to steal literally
billions of dollars from the public treasury and to lock up major
sectors of the economy through monopolies that were nothing more than
figurative cash registers to deliver money to the family.  Despite
Suharto’s downfall and subsequent death in January of 2008, the family
has remained relatively powerful in Jakarta, although they have been
more discreet compared to the way they flaunted their power during the
father’s lifetime. Tutut especially has emerged as a behind-the-scenes
power broker.

The
battle between Tanoesoedibjo and Tutut, whose family once owned the
only three private TV channels in the country, may turn on arcane legal
points, but the meaning is clear: Tutut wants back into a game she and
her siblings once dominated.

Tanoesoedibjo
and his family are now preoccupied with graft charges dealing with a
Justice Ministry company registry Web site formerly run by another
company owned by Tanoesoedibjo’s brother Hartono. The attorney
general’s office alleges that the government lost at least Rp410
billion ($45.1 million) from Hartono’s company’s fraudulent operation
of the site from 2001 through 2008. Hartono and former Justice Minister
Yusril Ihza Mahendra were charged Monday, an action that presumably
emboldened Tutut to go after TPI. On Monday, she said she controlled
the station and appointed a new CEO, Yapto Soeryosumarno, a longtime
friend of the Suharto clan, to run it. TPI broadcasts mostly dangdut
music and low-brow soap operas.

It
is a squabble between onetime allies. During the Suharto era,
Tanoesoedibjo was known to be close to the family and in 2002, Tutut
asked Tanoesoedibjo’s company, PT Berkah Karya Bersama, to help her out
with the station’s debts. She alleges that the media tycoon misused her
appointment letter to hold a shareholders’ meeting on March 18, 2005,
and take over. She is seeking Rp4.3 trillion (US$465 million) in
damages.

But
it appears there are other ways to regain control than shareholders’
meetings. Last Sunday, Tutut told local media said that a “procedural
error” in the registration of a change of ownership of TPI with the
ministry of justice of in 2005 meant that she still owned the station.
Tanoesoedibjo’s
allies say Tutut’s legal basis for her claim, a Ministry of Justice
decree, was falsified.  In return, Tutut’s lawyer, Harry Ponto, urged
Tanoesoedibjo to let the police sort out the matter. “We welcome their
move to take the dispute to police,” Ponto said. “In the past,
[Tutut’s] claim over TPI was denied through closed-door maneuvers.”

A
Justice Ministry official refused to comment on the case. “I have to
study the issue first,” said ministry spokesman Martua Batubara.

Tanoesoedibjo
Monday took Ponto up on his word and reported the interim procedural
director of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights to the Jakarta
Police for fraudulently issuing the new decree on June 8 that in effect
gave control of TPI to Tutut by annulling the 2005 decree he used to
take over legal ownership of the station.

In
Indonesia’s murky legal waters, it is unclear if that decree has any
legal standing or is even enforceable. How the case proceeds from here
on will be keenly watched by market players and investors alike. TPI’s
shares have already been sold down as investors are uncertain of the
outcome of the battle.  In many ways, observers say, this is a test
case for Indonesia’s maturing corporate and legal system, testing the
ability of the system to weigh the evidence and rule impartially.

With reporting from the Jakarta Globe