Attacks on the Press 2003: Indonesia

Indonesia’s press freedom climate remains fragile, without the constitutional and legal safeguards necessary to guarantee journalists’ safety and access to information. In 2003, military restrictions on reporters’ access to conflict areas and harsh lawsuits presented the greatest threat to the media since former dictator Suharto was ousted in 1998.

Despite operating under a reform-minded press law passed in 1999, the Indonesian media still must run a gauntlet of other restrictive, colonial-era laws. Powerful business and political leaders routinely bring criminal libel charges against journalists, forcing them to face the possibility of jail time for their reporting. In addition, military authorities have demonstrated their eagerness to restrict press access in the name of national security. Legislators have resisted repealing a host of colonial-era laws that affect the press, and efforts to push through a constitutional amendment guaranteeing press freedom have gone nowhere.

One of Indonesia’s most respected publications, Tempo magazine, and several of its staff members are battling libel charges brought by powerful businessman Tomy Winata, one of the country’s wealthiest entrepreneurs. The charges stemmed from a March 3 story citing allegations that Tomy, who goes by his first name, stood to profit from a fire in Jakarta’s sprawling Tanah Abang textile market in February and raising questions about his possible involvement in the blaze. The piece included a statement from Tomy denying the allegation. The article also reported on an alleged proposal the tycoon had made to Jakarta officials to renovate the huge market at government expense, which Tomy denies as well.

Shortly after the Tempo piece appeared, and one day after the magazine received a written complaint from Tomy’s lawyers, some 200 people from a pro-government youth group supporting the tycoon attempted to force their way into Tempo‘s offices, saying they intended to burn down the building. Police initially stood by and watched before turning away the mob.

Tempo Chief Editor Bambang Harymurti, Editor Iskandar Ali, and reporter Ahmad Taufik were charged with criminal defamation, punishable by up to four years in prison, and with “publishing an article that could cause unrest,” punishable by up to eight years.

In a bizarre twist, Tomy also brought charges against one of the magazine’s co-founders, Goenawan Mohamad, after he made a statement about the suit urging that the country not be allowed to fall into the hands of criminals. After a September hearing in the case against Goenawan, a Jakarta court ordered his private house confiscated as collateral against possible damages, although he has been allowed to continue living in it. The highly unusual move was widely denounced as harassment, especially since Goenawan, one of Indonesia’s most prominent media figures, is no longer involved in Tempo‘s operations.

With Goenawan’s trial under way, the complex case is certain to drag on well into 2004, but the message has been clear to most observers from the start: The government may no longer directly attack the press, but business interests angered by the independent media’s investigations into their operations can rely on punitive laws and weak courts to harass journalists.

The choice of Tempo as a target is particularly ironic. The magazine, founded in 1971, was twice closed by the Suharto regime, most recently in 1994. Its 1998 reopening was taken as a sure sign that press freedom had been restored. Two of those embroiled in the current case are longtime heroes of Indonesia’s press freedom struggle. Taufik was arrested in 1994 and imprisoned for three years for publishing an underground magazine protesting Suharto’s clampdown on the press. Goenawan, in addition to founding the magazine, is the key figure behind an entire generation of journalists who have changed the face of the profession in Indonesia. Both men received CPJ’s International Press Freedom award–Taufik from prison in 1994, and Goenawan in 1998.

In October, editor Supratman (like many Indonesians, he uses only one name) faced the wrath of Indonesia’s legal system when police charged him with insulting President Megawati Sukarnoputri in the extremely popular tabloid Rakya Merdeka. In banner headlines and raunchy cartoons, the paper compared the president to a cannibal and accused her of corruption during a series of protests against fuel-price hikes in early 2003. Under outdated “insult” laws inherited from Indonesia’s Dutch colonial rulers, Supratman received a six-month suspended prison sentence.

Following his sentencing, Supratman said the verdict would force him to use self-censorship to survive. “We can no longer use these types of headlines to lambaste the country’s leaders,” he said. “It’s a step backward for the country’s press freedom.”

Only a month earlier, the same court had sentenced Rakyat Merdeka‘s former editor, Karim Paputungan, to a five-month suspended sentence for publishing an allegedly defamatory cartoon of Parliament Speaker Akbar Tandjung, who was convicted of corruption in 2002 but refused to leave office.

The press’s troubles were hardly confined to the courtroom, however. Military authorities launched an offensive against separatist rebels in restive Aceh Province in May and have since pursued a strict policy of controlling access to the conflict. Borrowing directly from the U.S. script in Iraq, the military embedded local reporters with units and tried to prevent others from covering the war.

As soon as the offensive began, military authorities ordered the local press not to print statements from the rebel Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym, GAM. Armed forces chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto met with editors of major newspapers and broadcast outlets to rally patriotic support for the offensive. “In solving the Aceh case, public support plays a major role. If Indonesian media report news coming from GAM, we should question the depth of their nationalism,” Endriartono told reporters after the meeting. The military threatened lawsuits against newspapers that published early reports of military atrocities in the campaign, according to The Jakarta Post.

Shortly after the offensive began and negative publicity began to appear in the foreign press, foreign reporters found themselves virtually shut out of the conflict. They had to apply for special permission from a number of government agencies to venture into Aceh, and many were banned from the province. Those who did make it to Aceh were told to stay in major cities or risk arrest. Reporters were officially banned from contacting rebels or visiting rebel areas

“These regulations were sent to us by the U.S. Pacific Command. It is what they used in Iraq,” Maj. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, chief of information for the Indonesian armed forces, told foreign reporters at a press briefing in Jakarta on June 20 to formally unveil the tight restrictions. “Of course, we have adapted them to our local environment.”

U.S. freelance reporter William Nessen violated the restrictions by covering the war from the rebel side. He was with the rebels when the offensive started and remained with the insurgents for several weeks. Nessen, who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications, surrendered to Indonesian military authorities in June after facing death threats from local army commanders. He was arrested, jailed, convicted of visa violations, and sentenced to time served, one month and 10 days, before being deported on August 4.