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Indonesia: Editorial - Press Freedom In Danger

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EDITORIAL - PRESS FREEDOM IN DANGER

JAKARTA (Jakarta Post/Pacific Media Watch): Defying common sense, the South Jakarta District Court chose to denominate the damages in U.S. currency rather than rupiah in its verdict on Tuesday. The court's panel of judges ordered Koran Tempo daily to pay US$1 million to business tycoon Tomy Winata after it found the newspaper guilty of libeling Tomy by citing rumors in its report that he intended to open a casino in Southeast Sulawesi.

What makes it more absurd is that in the same decision the judges have used rupiah in their verdict that the daily should be fined Rp 10 million (US$1,190) per day if it fails to comply with the court's ruling. It is clear that the judges had no respect for their own country's currency -- and that they merely wanted to please the plaintiff, who demanded compensation in greenbacks.

The currency issue merely indicates the poor awareness of the judges in enforcing the law. The verdict also shows how law enforcers, once again, have ignored the principle of lex specialis derogat lex generalis (the application of a specific, rather than a general, law): The court accepted the plaintiff's demand to penalize the defendant based on the Criminal Code, instead of applying the press law.

The judges can no doubt cite any number of legal justifications in defence of their decision, but it only worsens the image of the South Jakarta District Court, which has reached many controversial verdicts over the years.

We do not wish to say that the press is free from mistakes, nor is it our intention to claim that the press is untouchable and can use its freedom as it wants, without restriction.

Former president Soeharto's fall in May 1998 also ended the government's oppression of the media. Press freedom is back on the right track but, of course, not without negative excess. It is the obligation of the media to stick to its code of ethics and obey the law.

However, we also note a very worrying development, in which government officials, powerful politicians and businesspeople seem to have deliberately used legal means to silence their strongest critics, the media. It is a much more sophisticated and respected means and thus politically safer, rather than being accused of condoning mass rallies by supporters. The press also acknowledges that using legal means is preferable to cracking down and jailing journalists, as occurred during Soeharto's era.

But with the country's glaringly corrupt judicial system it is very hard to believe that the above legal treatment of the media is purely in the interests of law enforcement alone.

Members of the elite, from President Megawati Soekarnoputri and Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung to Tomy Winata, now prefer to use the courts to punish those who highlight something negative about them. This is despite much campaigning about resorting to various types of out-of-court settlement such as complaining first to the Press Council.

In the case of Koran Tempo, if the high court and Supreme Court simply uphold the South Jakarta District Court's verdict without considering the higher public interest -- that press freedom is a basic pillar of democracy -- we could easily conclude that the daily would have to pay up and close down. Should that precedent be established, more and more media organizations would be driven to bankruptcy.

Indeed, for narrow-minded people who do not like the presence of a strong press, the bankruptcy of more media means that they no longer need to worry about public scrutiny. For them a weakened national press would mean they had more freedom to do anything they wanted to without outside interference.

The nation will never be able to reach its eventual goal of the creation of a strong and sustainable civil society without the presence of a free, impartial and, of course, responsible media.

We do respect the rights of people who think that they have been victimized by the press and thus take their cases to court. The media must also prepare itself to face this development.

But it is our duty to remind everyone that it would be too costly for the nation to let its press be silenced by those who use their power to crack down on their critics, using the law to achieve that end.

The South Jakarta District Court has done nothing to dispel the perception that the verdict against Koran Tempo has merely increased public dissatisfaction in how the law is enforced.

-----------------------------

KORAN TEMPO LAWYERS CALL FOR INQUIRY

By M. Taufiqurrahman, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

JAKARTA (JP/Pacific Media Watch): The Koran Tempo daily's defense team has called for an independent inquiry into a court's controversial libel verdict, which orders the newspaper to pay a whopping US$1 million in damages to tycoon Tomy Winata.

Lawyer for the defense Todung Mulya Lubis said the South Jakarta District Court's verdict was "excessive", and smacked of collusion.

"Apart from resorting to the appellate court, we demand an examination of the verdict should be carried out soon. It was arbitrary and went against any standing regulations that should protect journalists in carrying out their duties," Todung told a media conference on Wednesday.

With such a harsh verdict, the public could not be blamed for suspecting that the judges had colluded with Tomy to rule in favor of him, Todung said.

The amount of damages awarded would put the daily in a serious financial position and would set a powerful precedent, stifling the media's criticism of public figures.

The daily was found guilty of libeling Tomy in an article titled (Southeast Sulawesi) Governor Ali Mazi denies Tomy Winata to open casino, published in its Feb. 6, 2003, edition.

Judges on Tuesday ordered Koran Tempo to pay damages and make public apologies in the national and foreign media for three consecutive days. Should the daily fail to abide by the ruling, it will be fined Rp 10 million (US$1,190) a day.

Todung said the public were entitled to set up independent examination teams to scrutinize controversial court rulings.

Although recommendations from the team were not binding, they could influence subsequent court proceedings, he said.

Koran Tempo daily chief editor Bambang Harymurti said the panel of judges who made the verdict could end up facing prosecution.

"Their verdict could be categorized as an attempt to deter the press from serving the public. According to Press Law the judges could be sentenced to two years in prison if found guilty of hampering journalists in carrying out their duties."

The amount of damage that the daily has to settle contravenes Press Law No. 40/1999, which stipulates the maximum fines in media-related cases should stand at Rp 500 million ($ 58,000).

Bambang also called on the public to closely watch the South Jakarta District Court. It had a reputation for exonerating defendants in high-profile corruption cases and for convicting investigative journalists, he said.

Meanwhile, Todung said the fine, which was stated in U.S. dollars, was an insult to the national currency.

"The judges who handle this case are either careless or blunt for not converting the dollar into rupiah," Todung said, adding that he was told earlier the judges had previously set the figure at $2 million.

According to Todung, this was the first time an Indonesian court handed down a verdict demanding compensation be paid in a foreign currency.

In 1999, former president Soeharto filed and lost a lawsuit against US magazine Time weekly for publishing allegedly libelous articles. He had demanded $27 billion from the magazine for material losses and another $40,000 for immaterial losses.

A panel of judges chaired by Sihol Sitompul at the Central Jakarta District Court ruled in favor of Time.

+++niuswire

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