By William Fisher
It isn’t often I find myself agreeing with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. But the Secretary is to be commended for his spirited defense of an Indonesian journalist convicted of criminal defamation and sentenced to a year in prison “under laws dating to the Dutch colonial period and the early years of independence” – in what should never have been a criminal case in the first place.
The case involves his friend, Bambang Harymurti, the chief editor of Tempo, Indonesia's leading newsmagazine, and two of his colleagues. Charges stem from an article in Tempo that linked a wealthy Indonesian businessman to a suspicious fire in a Jakarta market where the businessman planned to build a fancy commercial shopping center. The businessman sued for civil defamation and, according the Wolfowitz, “unusually, the government charged Mr. Bambang and two of his colleagues with criminal defamation. Prosecutors,” he added, “asked for two-year sentences and - even more unusually - asked that Mr. Bambang be detained immediately, treating him like a dangerous criminal who should not be allowed to remain at large.”
Mr. Bambang, Secretary Wolfowitz wrote in the New York Times (September 16), is “a journalist of enormous integrity, someone who takes seriously his responsibility not only to publish the truth but also not to publish falsehoods. He is also a Muslim who has courageously denounced terrorism and extremism on the editorial pages of his magazine.”
One of Mr. Bambang’s acquitted co-defendants was Ahmad Taufik, a founding member of the Indonesian journalists’ organization, the Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI), who was previously jailed under the criminal code during an attempt by the Suharto regime to clamp down on press freedom. In 1995, he was jailed for three years for reportedly "hate-sowing articles." In 1997, Taufik was awarded the 1995 CPJ International Press Freedom Award, but could not accept the award because he was in jail.
”The mere fact that this case has been brought, “ Wolfowitz writes, “is a threat to the freedom and democracy that Indonesia has enjoyed since the collapse of the Suharto government six years ago.”
President Christopher Warren of the International Federation of Journalists, agrees. "The rise of repressive regimes in Indonesia has historically been heralded by a restriction of press freedom, including an over-zealous use of spurious legal avenues to lock up defenders of free speech," says Warren. "The journalists of the world are today calling on your government to act in the interests of genuine freedom of the press in Indonesia and repeal these regressive laws.".
While praising Indonesia for making “remarkable progress in developing democratic institutions”, Secretary Wolfowitz says his “concerns about this case extend far beyond my worry about the fate of a friend. I believe that the whole world has a stake in the success of democracy in Indonesia…One of the worst possible ways that power can be abused is to take away the freedom of the press and thereby remove one of the most important mechanisms for ensuring that government respects the rights of its citizens.”
The collapse of Indonesia's first brief experience with democracy in the 1950's began with "an attempt to undermine freedom of the domestic press through the criminalization of journalists." Under President Sukarno, 60 press cases were brought before the Special State Court in September 1957 alone, Mr. Wolfowitz notes.
Indonesia, with a population of almost 240 million, is 90 per cent Muslim and home to more Muslims than any other country in the world -- 15 percent of the world's Muslim population. That, says Wolfowitz, “makes it an important role model in the post-September 11th world. It is no accident that the terrorist fanatics associated with Al Qaeda have been attacking Indonesia, even before the horrendous bombings in Bali in October 2002. And the attacks continue, with one just last week.”
But press freedom in Indonesia presents a mixed picture. "I'm worried," says Leo Batubara, executive director of the Indonesian Newspaper Publishers Association. "The people around (President) Megawati have learned two things from our history: If you want to hold on to power, you have to be close to the military, and you have to control the press."
He cites the agreement of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) to revive the Ministry of Information, which, under President Suharto, was used to muzzle the nation's media. Publications were licensed by the ministry and could be shut down on a moment's notice if deemed to transgress their vague guidelines. Nongovernment radio news was illegal, and all television stations were either government-run or owned by Suharto's associates.
Hinca Panjaitan, a lawyer who runs the Indonesian Media Law and Policy Institute, says members of Megawati's party have been in the forefront of efforts to water down legislation that would guarantee press freedom, particularly for the broadcast media. "Her party doesn't really care about open media,” he says. , Panjaitan, who lobbies for more liberal media laws and teaches media outlets about their rights, says a creeping backlash against the media has begun, with regional bureaucrats and soldiers taking the lead.
Much of the anti-Government sentiment is based on the use of defamation laws against journalists like Secretary Wolfowitz’s friend. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), an organization representing over 500,000 journalists worldwide, has launched a global campaign -- including a protest march in India -- urging Indonesia to refrain from jailing three journalists under the country's draconian defamation laws. IFJ member organizations worldwide are participating in a campaign calling on the government of Indonesia to remove defamation as a criminal offense and restrict financial damages in civil defamation to sensible and rational amounts. They are also urging it to remove the crime of "insulting the President or Vice-President" from the criminal code.
"'Don't jail journalists' is the message that we are sending to the Government of Indonesia…” says IFJ president Warren. "Indonesia needs to recognize that it is completely inappropriate to send journalists to jail for defamation; defamation should be tried only in the civil, not criminal, jurisdiction."
Over the past year, a number of defamation cases have been brought against journalists and media organizations.
In September 2003, the news editor of the newspaper Rakyat Merdeka, Karim Paputungan, received a suspended sentence from a Jakarta court for publishing a satirical cartoon of parliamentary speaker Akbar Tandjung. The cartoon satirized the speaker after he was found guilty of corruption. Tandjung is appealing the decision and remains speaker.
In October 2003, editor Supratman of Rakyat Merdeka was given a suspended six-month jail sentence and a year’s probation after being found guilty by a Jakarta court for "spreading hatred" after publishing headlines critical of the Indonesian government and particularly the president. The case was brought under article 134 of the criminal code, which outlaws insults to the president or vice-president and is punishable by up to six years in jail.
Says Amnesty International: “Legal cases recently brought against media professionals highlight continuing flaws in the Indonesian legal system and indicate disturbing attempts to restrict fundamental rights to freedom of expression and opinion and the public’s right to access to information. Amnesty International believes that these cases represent the most serious threat to press freedom in Indonesia for almost a decade and is urging the Indonesian government to take the steps necessary to uphold fundamental rights and avert a backsliding into a more restrictive environment”.
Another source of concern has been treatment of the press trying to cover the violence in the breakaway prince of Aceh last year. According to Human Right Watch, the Indonesian government “has blocked Indonesian and foreign correspondents from covering the military campaign in Aceh, where gross human rights violations are taking place…Indonesia’s security forces and separatist guerrillas have intimidated journalists…”, says Saman Zia-Zarifi, deputy director of the HRW’s Asia Division.
HRW says that reports from Aceh highlighted several instances of executions of civilians by the Indonesian military, widespread displacement of civilians, and a lack of basic necessities such as food, healthcare and access to education. Since martial law began, Indonesian security forces have verbally and physically intimidated journalists in Aceh. Military officials have also arbitrarily detained correspondents in the field. In one widely reported case, members of Indonesia´s elite special forces, Kopassus, beat an Indonesian radio journalist who was reporting on the plight of Acehnese civilians fleeing the military campaign.
It adds: "Whenever the press has pulled away the shroud of secrecy around Aceh, it has exposed serious abuses. As the government intensifies its military campaign, press access to Aceh becomes even more crucial for providing information on how civilians are surviving the war."
Reporters without Borders, a Paris-based organization that speaks for journalists, says the Indonesian army “did everything possible to keep the news media away from Aceh…Two reporters were killed in the rebel zone and dozens of others were physically attacked or threatened.”
Nevertheless, despite generations of widespread corruption, many observers believe Indonesia is serious about wanting to build democratic institutions. How it approaches the issue of press freedom will be a major measure of the depth of its commitment.