Separatist rebellions, a deteriorating economy, and political intrigue combined to keep Indonesia on edge for much of 2002. But despite the many challenges and tensions facing the country, the press remained substantially free and hung on to most gains made since 1998, when decades of dictatorship ended with the ouster of then president Suharto.
The October 12 terrorist bombing on the resort island of Bali, which claimed nearly 200 lives, highlighted the increasing divide between foreign press’s treatment of Indonesia’s terrorism crisis and the approach taken by the local media. While Western news organizations have been quick to outline the details of a terrorist network in the country, many observers were disturbed by domestic news reports, even in the mainstream press, claiming that the attack was the work of a foreign country intent on seizing Indonesia’s natural resources or discrediting Islam. Some local newspapers even asserted that the U.S. government had participated in the attack.
In September, Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir threatened Time magazine with a libel suit for running a story in which U.S. intelligence sources identified him as a terrorist leader. Indonesian authorities later arrested Ba’asyir and charged him with plotting several terrorist actions.
There was little progress on the legislative front during 2002. Nearly three years of debate about the future of Indonesia’s electronic media ended in November with the passage of a landmark broadcasting regulatory bill. The measure had been long delayed because reformers and industry representatives sought to establish an accountable, independent regulatory mechanism for radio and television that would reverse the legacy of central control left by Suharto’s regime.
Unfortunately, closed-door negotiations between lawmakers and government representatives produced a bill establishing a flawed National Broadcasting Commission, whose members are appointed by the government. In addition, the bill leaves control of frequency allocation in the hands of a government ministry, allowing for substantial political interference in broadcast content and regulation.
CPJ and a number of local and international advocacy organizations opposed the bill, but its passage still brought a measure of relief to some in the Indonesian media who had been operating in a chaotic regulatory environment since the dismantling of Suharto-era controls in 1998. The respected Alliance of Independent Journalists urged the media to work with the new broadcasting commission to make it responsive to the press.
Other Suharto-period laws remain in effect. Foreign reporters, for example, are still required to obtain special journalist visas. Failure to do so can result in deportation and criminal prosecution. Police in the restive northwestern province of Aceh arrested and jailed Scottish journalist and academic Lesley McCulloch in September for allegedly violating the terms of her tourist visa. Authorities had threatened to file espionage charges against McCulloch for possessing documents and photographs related to the Free Aceh Movement, the rebel group battling the Indonesian government for control of the province. McCulloch, who says she was on vacation visiting friends in Aceh, was ultimately charged under Indonesia’s immigration law for “activities incompatible with tourist visas,” which is punishable by up to five years in prison.
During her trial, which began in late November, McCulloch told reporters that Indonesian authorities were harassing her because of articles she had written about human rights abuses in Aceh. On December 30, 2002, an Aceh court found McCulloch guilty, and the judge in the case accused her of endangering national security. She was sentenced to five months in jail, including time served awaiting trial, and was expected to be released early in 2003.
Indonesian authorities use visa restrictions to monitor and control the activities of visiting reporters, resulting in discrimination against nonresident foreign correspondents. Resident journalists, both foreign and local, face no formal restrictions on their movement in the country and are generally free to visit conflict areas such as Aceh and Irian Jaya, where another separatist rebellion is under way. Immigration authorities, however, frequently stamp restrictions into journalist visas barring them from conflict areas.
Even resident foreign journalists sometimes draw fire from authorities. In March, veteran Australian correspondent Lindsay Murdoch of the Sydney Morning Herald was banned from working in the country. Indonesian authorities refused to renew his working visa, offering no explanation. Murdoch, who was based in the capital, Jakarta, for three years and won numerous awards for his reporting, told CPJ that he was banned because his aggressive reporting on human rights abuses had angered the military.
In November, East Timorese prosecutors indicted two Indonesian soldiers for the 1999 murder of Financial Times reporter Sander Thoenes, who was killed in the aftermath of East Timor’s vote for independence from Indonesia. The two soldiers, Maj. Jacob Sarosa and Lt. Camilo dos Santos, were both members of Battalion 745, which has been implicated in numerous rights abuses in East Timor. Observers doubt that the two officers, both of whom reportedly remain on active duty, will be extradited to face trial in East Timor. Meanwhile, efforts to prosecute the Thoenes murder in Indonesia have stalled. In June, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office in Jakarta claimed that there was not enough evidence to pursue the case. A month later, Indonesian prosecutors promised to reopen the investigation, but there was no discernible progress by year’s end.
Corruption continued to plague the local media. Since the restoration of press freedom, some journalists, especially in rural areas, have used their press credentials to extort money from local authorities and businesses. Conversely, many companies will pay journalists to cover press conferences. In October, provincial authorities in Riau, on the island of Sumatra, announced a scheme to give every journalist in the province a no-interest housing loan. According to the Jakarta Post, only members of the reform-minded Alliance of Independent Journalists refused the offer.
Persatuan Wartawan Indonesia
A bomb exploded at the office of Persatuan Wartawan Indonesia, or the Indonesian Journalists Association, in Lhokseumawe, in northern Aceh Province. The bomb caused no injuries but damaged the basement of the two-story building, according to the Indonesian news agency Antara. No one claimed responsibility for the attack. Journalists reporting in restive Aceh Province, which is located at the western tip of the Indonesian archipelago, are often subject to violent reprisals from separatist rebels and security forces. The civil war in Aceh began in 1976 and is one of Asia’s longest-running, and least reported, conflicts.
Lindsay Murdoch, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age
Murdoch, an award-winning reporter for the Australian newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne-based The Age, was refused a renewal of his work visa, effectively banning him from continuing as a correspondent in the capital, Jakarta. This action was taken to punish Murdoch for writing stories that criticize government policies, local sources said.
Murdoch had applied to renew his work visa on December 10, 2001. Wahid Supriyadi, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, had earlier sent a fax to the Herald suggesting that the paper send a new correspondent to replace Murdoch. Subsequently, Murdoch’s application was denied.
After Murdoch’s editors visited the Foreign Ministry several times, he was granted a three-month extension of his visa, which expired on March 10. Supriyadi told Murdoch that an “interdepartmental committee” had recommended that he not be granted a new work visa. Supriyadi also told Murdoch that the committee had mentioned two stories as being particularly objectionable.
The first was a May 14, 2001, piece about an incident in which Indonesian soldiers in the restive province of Aceh murdered a baby in front of his mother. The other was a series of articles in 2001 that uncovered evidence that East Timorese children, separated from their families during the violence following the terri- tory’s 1999 vote rejecting Indonesian rule, had been sent to orphanages in Indonesia and were being held against their parents’ will. According to CPJ research, Indo- nesian authorities did not deny that these incidents occurred.
Cahyo Paksi Priambodo, Sinar Harapan
Indra Sholihin, detik.com
M. Sholeh, Media Indonesia
Cahyo, a photographer for the daily Sinar Harapan; Sholihin, of the online newsmagazine detik.com; Sholeh, of the daily Media Indonesia; and Saptono, of the state news agency Antara, were beaten by police while covering security forces who were trying to disperse a crowd of student demonstrators protesting in front of the parliamentary compound in the capital, Jakarta.
Cahyo told the Antara news agency that he was taking pictures of “student-police brawls … when suddenly someone kicked my head from behind and beat me up. I was shouting that I was a journalist while hold-ing up my camera, but they continued beating me,” he said. Police also confiscated Cahyo’s camera, though they later returned it after his colleagues protested.
The next day, the House of Representa- tives’ Commission on Defense and Foreign Affairs issued a statement condemning the assault on journalists and asking the police chief to punish the officers responsible. “Should the police continue resorting to violence like that, the House would not approve their request for more budget,” said commission vice chairman Effendi Choirie of the National Awakening Party.
About 300 student demonstrators had demanded a special legislative probe into allegations that Parliament speaker Akbar Tandjung was involved in channeling US$4.5 million in government funds to his powerful Golkar Party. Police used water cannons and batons to break up the protest, according to The Associated Press.
Lesley McCulloch, free-lance
All broadcast journalists
The House of Representatives passed a landmark broadcast bill establishing a National Broadcasting Commission (KPI), which is empowered to revoke broadcast licenses and censor broadcasters over a variety of vaguely defined content restrictions. The commission answers to the Office of the President.
In essence, the KPI will be a quasi-governmental agency that can punish but not issue regulations, according to critics who have studied the law closely. The commission, for example, will issue recommendations on the granting of licenses, but the government retains veto power. Another provision creates a corps of investigators–in effect an ill-defined “broadcast police force”–to enforce potential violations of content restrictions on advertising and programming. It is unclear whether these investigators will come under the purview of the KPI or government agencies.
Broadcasters complain that the law will inhibit investment and planning by calling for a “tryout period” of six months to one year, during which time a new license could be revoked arbitrarily. This clause could severely inhibit the independence of broadcast journalists, who may censor themselves to curry favor with government regulators. The bill also bans commercial advertising by so-called community broadcasters. This could result in community broadcasters being unable to generate sufficient revenue to sustain their operations.
Members of the Indonesian Press and Broadcasting Society (MPPI) have called some provisions in the bill “monstrous.” According to MPPI executive director Leo Batubara, “the final draft of the broadcasting bill marks the return of the era of repression.