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Press Freedom Under Threat In Indonesia

Press Freedom Under Threat In Indonesia

JAKARTA (TAPOL/Pacific Media Watch): Press freedom in Indonesia is coming under sustained attack from big business and the courts with the encouragement of Megawati Sukarnoputri's government. A number of lawsuits for libel have been filed against publications in Jakarta. In addition, the military is exercising tight control over journalists in Aceh, who have been warned to toe the nationalist line in their coverage of the war in the province.

These developments represent a serious reversal of the democratic gains, which followed the downfall of the Suharto regime in May 1998.

In 1999, as part of the post-Suharto reformasi process, Press Law 40/1999 was enacted which grants important protections to the media while making provision for the establishment of a Press Council to mediate between the media and the public. Under this post-Suharto arrangement, the state lost its power to ban publications. As a result however, attacks on press freedom are coming from big business and the courts while there has been a rush of complaints against the press using the Criminal Code, not Press Law 40/1999, because it permits far heavier penalties.

Since early 2003, a number of lawsuits have been filed against the Tempo weekly, one of Indonesia's leading publications, which was banned twice during the Suharto era. Leading the attack is the country's most influential businessman, Tomy Winata, who has extensive banking and real estate interests and close ties with the military as well as with the criminal underworld.

A week after an article appeared in Tempo on 3 March 2003 citing allegations that Winata may have been behind a fire that gutted 5,500 kiosks in Tanah Abang market, Jakarta, a gang of thugs attacked the publication's editorial office, threatening to burn it down. The police were present at the scene but did nothing to stop the attack.

In May 2003, members of a youth group, Pemuda Panca Merdeka attacked a leading human rights organisation, Kontras. When this attack was reported in Tempo, leaders of the PPM assailed Tempo for reporting the incident. Although initially it appeared that an agreement would be reached between PPM and Tempo, the youth organisation unexpectedly changed tack and filed a lawsuit against the publication in December 2003.

The 1999 press law provides for anyone dissatisfied at their treatment by the press to use their right of reply. However, the criminal code still retains an article introduced during the Dutch colonial era regarding the crime of defamation which provides for a penalty of up to four years in prison or a possible eight years 'for publishing an article that could cause unrest'. There have been repeated calls for the repeal of these 'hate-articles', which are now being used to frame Tempo's chief editor, Bambang Harymurti, as well as well editor Iskandar Ali and reporter Ahmad Taufiq.

Goenawan Mohamad, a co-founder of Tempo back in 1974, called on journalists in February to stand together against these assaults on the press, saying that Indonesia should not be allowed to fall into the hands of a gang of criminals. This statement has resulted in his being charged by Winata for libel. In the early stages of the trial, the court ordered that his home be seized as collateral against a possible claim for damages in the event that he loses the case, though he is still resident in the house. The case is still ongoing.

In June 2003, Tempo's sister publication, Koran Tempo, published an article citing allegations that Winata is linked to illegal gambling. This resulted in a lawsuit for libel and a record judgement ordering the publication to pay US$1 million damages to Winata as well as publishing apologies on three consecutive days in several national newspapers. The publication has appealed against this verdict.

Media workers have strongly denounced the way in which the criminal code is being used against journalists and publications, while the press law is being ignored. This strategy is supported by Syamsul Mu'arif, the minister for communications and information, who is on record as saying (Jakarta Post, 24 February 2004) that the criminal code will be used against journalists because it allows harsher penalties against offending journalists than the press law. Explaining that the government is now pressing for a revision of the press law, he said that until this happens, the criminal code will be used.

Other publications have also been targeted. Late last year, a Jakarta court handed down a six-month suspended sentence against Supratman, the executive editor of the popular tabloid, Rakyar Merdeka and a five-month suspended sentence against Karim Paputungan of the same publication for publishing articles that are deemed to have insulted President Megawati and the speaker of parliament, Ahmad Tanjung.

There is a danger that the new constraints will force jounalists to exercise self-censorship. TAPOL strongly condemns these blatant attacks on freedom of the press in Indonesia and warns that this poses a grave threat to the process of democratisation as a whole. If this trend is not reversed, other hard-won freedoms that followed in the wake of the downfall of Suharto and the end of his reviled dictatorship will also be lost.



PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media based in Sydney, Journalism Studies at the University of PNG (UPNG), the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and Community Communications Online (c2o).

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