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By Muninggar Sri Saraswati

JAKARTA (Jakarta Post Online/Pacific Media Watch): President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has reiterated his support for press freedom, promising that the government would settle disputes with the media out of court.

Communications and information minister Sofyan Djalil said on Thursday that the President was committed to supporting the development of a free and professional media as it was a major part of democracy.

"We will continue to use hak jawab (the right to respond) as we know that
media reports are not always accurate," Sofyan said at a press briefing after
accompanying the President at a meeting with the Indonesian Journalists
Association (PWI).

However, the President recently sent a team led by Sofyan to visit the offices of Kompas, the country's leading newspaper, and Rakyat Merdeka newspaper to convey displeasure at articles on post-tsunami issues, which the government deemed opinionated.

"We exercised our right to object to the articles carried by the two dailies, and the case is closed," Sofyan said, explaining the visits.

However, he said the government would not hesitate to bring a dispute with
print or electronic media to the Indonesia Press Council if its right to
respond was ignored.

"We will only use the legal approach as a last resort," Sofyan asserted.

Susilo acknowledged that a number of articles on the media in the Criminal
Code were products of Dutch colonial rulers and were unsuited to current
conditions, Sofyan said.

"However, we need to develop a benchmark for the Indonesian media. Even in
countries with well established democracy, the press must abide by regulations
and code of ethics," he said.

Last year, Tempo magazine chief editor Bambang Harymurti was found guilty in
a defamation case against businessman Tomy Winata. Tempo also lost a civil
lawsuit in connection with the case and was ordered to pay US$1 million in
compensation. The magazine has appealed the verdicts.

Rakyat Merdeka, a newspaper known for its sensational headlines, lost
separate libel cases last year against president Megawati Soekarnoputri and
House of Representatives speaker Akbar Tandjung. Two of its editors are appealing their
six-to-eight-month prison terms.

During Thursday's media conference after the meeting with the President, PWI
chairman Tarman Azzam said Susilo would attend the celebration of National
Press Day on Feb. 9 in the Riau capital Pekanbaru.

"The President is set to hold talks with people at the event," he said.

The PWI commemoration of the day has drawn public criticism because the Rp 6
billion (US$666,600) event, which features a national sports competition, will
reportedly be financed by the Riau budget.

Riau Governor Rusli Zainal, who accompanied Tarman at the press conference,
did not deny the reports, saying his administration often disbursed funds from
the provincial budget for social events.

Critics have lashed out at the Riau administration for spending so much money
for the PWI event.

They also accused the PWI of being insensitive to the suffering of tsunami
victims in Aceh and North Sumatra, including fellow journalists.

Tarman said the PWI got funding from other sources apart from the Riau
government to finance the event.

Responding to the criticism, Tarman said there was no need to draw out
compassion for Aceh.

"We don't need to be sad for a long time. We should support Aceh to rise
again. The event is a part of our attention toward the Acehnese," he said,
that the PWI had raised funds for its members in Aceh.

Tarman said the committee would cover travel and accommodation costs of
delegates participating in the National Press Day celebration.

The PWI will also present awards for exceptional reports on post-tsunami
Aceh, he added.

© Scoop Media

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