INDONESIA’S harsh and often abused defamation laws have come under strong criticism throughout the year as Indonesian businessman Tomy Winata and other powerful figures repeatedly filed criminal suits against newspapers who dared to report on their business activities.Despite the fact that a special Press Law (No. 40/1999) was passed to regulate such complaints and challenge the Indonesian press on its professionalism and fairness in a way that is in line with internationally accepted practices, Indonesia’s officials and public figures prefer to file cases according to articles on “insult and defamation,” provided for under the Criminal Code to punish journalists. Even more worrying is that even legal authorities (police, lawyers, and judges) have continued to implement the Criminal and Civil Codes to win cases related to the press or media, in disregard of the Press Law.
Indonesia’s antiquated Criminal Code, which derives from the one existing under Dutch colonial rule, contains 35 articles that can be used for the prosecution of journalists in connection with their work.
The first of the many legal attacks on press freedom that IPI registered throughout the year, took place in January, when the South Jakarta District Court ruled against Koran Tempo daily and ordered it to pay US $1 million in damages to well-connected businessman Tomy Winata Winata had filed a libel suit against the newspaper. The magazine was also ordered to publish apologies for three consecutive days in newspapers and broadcast media, according to international news reports.
Winata sued Koran Tempo chief editor Bambang Harymurti, reporter Dedy Kumiawan, and the PT Tempo International Media company for defamation after the magazine published a report in February 2003 saying that Winata had applied to open a gambling den in South Sulawesi province. Winata sought US $2.5 million in damages, saying the report harmed his reputation as a businessman, according to The Jakarta Post.
The newspaper also reported that after the article was published, a group of Winata supporters besieged the Tempo offices on Jl. Proklamasi and assaulted a number of journalists.
In March, Tempo magazine, a sister publication of the Koran Tempo daily, was ordered by the Central Jakarta District Court to publicly apologize and to pay a fine of approximately US $59,000, as CPJ reported, in a case filed once again by Winata.
The article titled, “Ada Tomy in Tenebang?” (Is there Tomy in Tanah Abang?), was published in the 3-9 March 2003 edition of Tempo, and said that the businessman had a hand in setting the largest textile market in Southeast Asia on fire and profited from it. Winata filed libel charges against PT Tempo Inti Media, chief editor Bambang Harymurti and two of his reporters, T. Iskandar Ali and Ahmad Taufik. This was the ninth time Winata had filed a case against Tempo in two years.
Following lengthy court proceedings, the Central Jakarta District Court sentenced Tempo weekly’s chief editor Bambang Harymurti to one year in prison over charges of criminal defamation. The court acquitted Ali and Taufik, saying that the editor, rather than the reporters, was ultimately responsible for the story.
Harymurti was found guilty of violating Article 14 (1) of the Criminal Code and could have faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. At the end of the year, the editor was free pending his appeal to the Supreme Court.
Two days before, a judgement had upheld Tempo’ s appeal in two other libel suits filed by Winata, dismissing the cases as improper and stating that Winata should have resorted to the Press Law, not the Criminal Code. This was the first time that the judges ruled that the Press Law should be wielded in cases related to the press, therefore setting a good precedent.
Tempo was not the only newspaper attacked this year in Indonesia.
Towards the end of the year, on 22 December, Risang Bima Wijaya, former general manager of Radar Jogja newspaper, was sentenced to nine months in jail for defamation. The Yogyakarta District Court in central Java found Wijaya guilty of publishing several articles in Radar Jogja that defamed the general manager of the Kedaulatan Rakyat newspaper, the largest circulation newspaper in Yogyakarta province.
According to local news reports, presiding judge Djoko refused to answer journalists questions on why he did not apply the Press Law in the case, despite the case being a media dispute and not a criminal one.
The judge said that the defendant had written several articles in his newspaper alleging that Soemadi had sexually harassed one of his staff, Sri Wahyuni. However, in the articles, the defendant never sought confirmation from Soemadi over whether the sexual harassment actually happened.
Early in January, minister of trade and industry, Rini MS Soewandi, filed a criminal complaint with the police against the entire board of 16 editors of the national daily Rakyat Merdeka for running a story saying that Rini arranged a counter-trade deal with the Russian government during a striptease show, The Jakarta Post reported.
Still in January, the National Intelligence Agency (BIN) chief A.M. Hendropriyono filed a similar complaint against the daily’s executive director, Teguh Santosa, after it ran an article stating that four bigwig politicians had initiated a protest aimed at toppling the government.
Later in May, again according to The Jakarta Post, the Central Jakarta District Court fined Trust, a financial and law magazine, approximately US $112,360 after it found that the magazine had defamed the director of PT Petindo Perkasa, John Hamenda, who was said by the magazine to have defrauded state-owned Bank Negara Indonesia (BNI) through a bogus loan scheme.
At the end of the year, following the terrible 26 December tsunami that hit South East Asia and, in particular, the Indonesian province of Aceh, the Indonesian authorities blocked journalists’ access to the Aceh province. Indonesian leaders said they felt compelled to limit the access of foreign journalists and aid workers to the region because, in the face of the continuing insurgency in the province, the country’s overwhelmed military could not guarantee the foreigners’ safety.
However, despite the state of national emergency, such restrictions of the journalists’ freedom of movement are in breach of the rights to press freedom and the people’s right to know.
As SEAPA pointed out, “the presence of journalists and ensuring access to information in Aceh help not only in letting the community and the world make sense of the 26 December tragedy; this also ensures transparency and improves efficiency as assistance and billions of dollars in aid pour into Indonesia.”
Following appeals by the Indonesian Association of Independent Journalists (AJI) and other press freedom organisations, at the end of the year, the Indonesian government agreed to re-open the whole Aceh region to journalists.
Cited from International Press Institute.