Attacks on the Press 1999: Indonesia

Despite a year of extraordinary political turmoil and uncertainty, the Indonesian press survived and prospered. Greater legal protections were put in place for media, and the once-feared Ministry of Information was eliminated. But the agonizing separation of East Timor from Indonesia (see separate entry on East Timor), and ethnic and political tensions in other parts of the country, exposed the working press to continued physical threats.

Given the depths of the economic and political crises facing Indonesia, the transformation of national media has been remarkable. In May 1998, the government lifted most restrictions on the press following the resignation of former President Suharto. The Indonesian media scene exploded, with hundreds of new and old publications providing coverage of the nation’s first democratic elections in 45 years. Freed from government strictures, radio and television news programs and talk shows quickly explored new territory.

The new freedom was evident in coverage of the May 1999 parliamentary elections; despite the hard-hitting new style of political reporting, most candidates said they were treated fairly by the press.

This de facto press freedom was greatly enhanced by the passage of a liberal print media law in October. The new law eliminates licensing requirements, removes the government’s ability to ban publications, and guarantees freedom of the press. It even imposes penalties on anyone who tries to restrict press freedom by interfering with media. At year’s end Indonesian journalists were working to create a new, autonomous press council, as required by the new press law.

Drafted with the support of local press associations, the new law provides meaningful legal protections for the first time in the history of Indonesia’s press. Broadcasters are now supporting a draft broadcast media bill, which would establish an independent commission roughly modeled on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. The goal, say broadcasters, is to extend press law protections to broadcast media, and establish a clear regulatory framework for the future allocation of frequencies (previously handled by the now-abolished Ministry of Information).

One of President Abdurrahman Wahid’s first acts in office, following his election by parliament in October, was to abolish the information ministry. Under Suharto the ministry was used to control and censor local media, and to run the government’s own propaganda machinery. Journalists generally welcomed its demise.

The press law, however, is just a first step toward full legal reform. Nineteen statutes in the existing Indonesian Criminal Code can still be used against journalists, and there are no constitutional guarantees for a free press. Sanctions for leaking state secrets, for example, or printing statements that “insult” the government, can be used against reporters and may result in lengthy jail sentences. Police have the power to interrogate journalists and to launch prosecutions for these alleged crimes.

While major national newspapers and privately owned broadcast media operate with little interference from government authorities, journalists living outside Jakarta told CPJ that they still fear reprisals from military and police officials if they investigate local corruption and abuses of power. In an environment where the give and take of journalism is a new phenomenon, many provincial journalists are wary of angering interest groups or the public at large.

In October, crowds of students in the province of South Sulawesi stormed the local office of Kompas, the country’s largest daily newspaper. The students were angered by Kompas‘s coverage of their demonstrations in support of former president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, Wahid’s predecessor. And in Pontianak, West Kalimantan Province, journalists told CPJ that they had shied away from reporting the details of a wave of ethnic killings in April and May, for fear that local people would attack their offices.

“In a multipolar conflict environment, no matter what you write, someone is going to be angry,” Yasmin Umar, the editor of the Pontianak Post, told CPJ. “The easiest thing to do is to not write anything.” In December, concern for the safety of journalists in Indonesia led the Southeast Asian Press Alliance to announce plans to open an office in Jakarta devoted to monitoring attacks on the press. The office was scheduled to open in February 2000.

August 10
Sjamsul Kahar, Serambi Indonesia ATTACKED, THREATENED
Basri Daham, Kompas THREATENED

At around 2:00 a.m., unidentified assailants threw two Molotov cocktails at the home of Sjamsul Kahar, editor of the Aceh-based, Indonesian-language daily Serambi Indonesia, and chairman of the Aceh chapter of the Indonesian Journalists Association. The firebombs set Kahar’s car ablaze and caused some external damage to the house. No one was injured.

Kahar’s son was home at the time of the attack, and telephoned his father at his Serambi Indonesia office to warn him not to return home that night. Kahar left Aceh the next day.

Kahar told CPJ that he had been receiving death threats almost weekly since May, when violence between Indonesian soldiers and separatist rebels in Aceh escalated sharply. Both Indonesian military officers and rebel leaders regularly threatened the newspaper, Kahar said, whenever they believed that its coverage of the conflict favored one side over the other.

Journalists in Indonesia suspected that either the Indonesian special forces or members of the separatist movement were behind the attack on Kahar. Though a senior commander of the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), Tunku Abdullah Syafi’i, condemned the firebombing, another GAM leader, Tunku Maulida, said that he and his followers were very angry about a report that had appeared in the August 4 edition of the Jakarta-based daily Kompas. Maulida added that all Kompas reporters should be killed.

Kahar no longer works for Kompas, but his family members told CPJ that he may have been targeted because he was still listed in the newspaper as a staff reporter from Banda Aceh, and because Serambi Indonesia is part of the Kompas newspaper group.

Kahar’s brother Basri Daham, who works as a reporter for Kompas from Lhokseumawe, the district capital of North Aceh, also left the province after receiving periodic death threats over the phone. In an August 12 letter to President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, CPJ urged the president to order a special inquiry into the attack on Kahar, and to ensure that all reports of death threats issued against journalists working in Aceh were thoroughly investigated.