Indonesian editor on trial for online Prophet cartoons

While Tommy Thomdeanm, cartoonist for Indonesia’s leading daily newspaper, Kompas, is being feted by the Islamic Republic of Iran for his entry in a $12,000 first-prize competition to insult millions of murdered Jews (see Indonesian may win world’s ‘best’ Holocaust cartoon), one of his colleagues is on trial in Jakarta for publishing cartoons of a different sort.

Teguh Santosa, editor of the online version of daily Rakyat Merdeka, is accused of religious defamation under the Indonesian penal code and risks five years in jail. The International Federation of Journalists has described the trial as an affront to press freedom.

He was arrested in July, despite a public apology by his publication for having showed caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, which many Muslims feel were insulting, and then released pending trial whch commenced yeasterday.

“To face five years imprisonment, is not only excessive, it is also an attack on the very foundations of freedom of expression” IFJ president Christopher Warren said, in a statement. “It is time for the Indonesian Government to recognise that jailing journalists for defamation is an ineffective and inappropriate penalty. Defamation should be dealt with through the civil Law of the Press 40/1999 in Indonesia.”

The Alliance of Independent Journalists Indonesia (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen) agrees. In a statement it set out the cause of the action and the demand for press freedom as guaranteed by Indonesia’s Constitution:

It all began when in its 2 February 2006 edition, RM Online republished three of 12 controversial cartoons taken from the October 2005 edition of Denmark-based Jylland Posten daily. RM Online had intended to show its readers that those were the pictures that had sparked protests from Islamic believers in various countries, including Indonesia. A group of people who saw the cartoons, however, accused RM Online of defaming Prophet Mohamad and Islam.

Conceding that “the press must be ready to be controlled by the people”, RM Online withdrew the cartoons from its online edition and issued an apology to Muslims who felt insulted that their religion had been degraded by the republication of the cartoons. Editor-in-chief Teguh also stressed that there had been no intention to insult any party, but merely to carry out journalistic duties in seeking, digging and sharing information.

The goodwill, however, was not enough. A group of Muslims filed a report against RM Online to the police and the Jakarta High Court followed up by prosecuting Teguh, accusing him of insulting Prophet Mohamad.

The Alliance of Independent Journalists Indonesia wishes to state that:

* The use of Articles 156 and 156(a) of the Criminal Code on defamation/degradation of religion against Teguh Santosa (RM Online) is an effort to criminalize journalists/press, which is not in line with the spirit of press freedom as stipulated by Article 28F of the 1945 Constitution.

* Since the very beginning, AJI has always called for the use of the Law on Press Number 40/1999 and rejected the use of the Criminal Code in efforts to resolve any disputes regarding press reports, because the latter option could cause censorship of critical journalists and threaten press freedom.

* What Teguh Santosa and RM Online had done was fully an effort to meet the public’s right to know as regards the cartoon controversy, which has been regarded by some Islamic followers as insulting Prophet Mohamad, and it was part of the duties of the press to seek and dig for information to share with the public.

* AJI is aware that there is no absolute freedom, including press freedom. However, AJI calls on the people and government apparatus who may question a news report or the publication of pictures in the media, to NOT take steps that can jail journalists or control press freedom. Regulations on the right to counter, the right to make correction and reports to the Press Council are the best consensus in settling press-related disputes.

Publishers, editors, journalists and readers are urged to protest this case. Messages of support to Teguh Santosa and the Alliance of Independent Journalists may be emailed to

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Born in Medan, lives in Jakarta, loves Indonesia.

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