CPJ protests criminal defamation charges

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply troubled by the continuing use of Indonesia’s outdated criminal defamation laws to punish journalists who criticize public figures. This disturbing trend is having a chilling effect on local journalists and poses a direct threat to press freedom in Indonesia. We call on you to do everything in your power to uphold Article 28 of Indonesia’s Constitution, which guarantees press freedom, and to fight for the removal of defamation laws from your country’s Criminal Code.

CPJ is particularly concerned about the criminal defamation charges being leveled against three journalists from Tempo magazine: Chief Editor Bambang Harymurti, Editor Teuku Iskandar Ali, and reporter Ahmad Taufik. The charges stem from an article published in March 2003 about well-known businessman Tomy Winata that cited allegations that he may have stood to profit from, and been responsible for, a fire at a textile market in February 2003. Last year, Winata filed as many as eight separate legal cases against Tempo, including two criminal cases.

The three journalists are currently on trial at the Central Jakarta District Court, charged under Article 14 of the Criminal Code of spreading false information and provoking social discord, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. They also face charges under articles 310 and 311 of the Criminal Code for defamation, which carry maximum four-year sentences. On July 26, state prosecutors demanded two-year prison sentences for the journalists, and that they be taken into custody immediately if convicted.

Lawyers for the journalists have protested the severity of the state’s tactics and cite several irregularities in the court proceedings, including the selective use of witness testimony, the removal of the original judge from the trial, and their accusations that Winata perjured himself on the witness stand by denying that he had given an interview to Tempo about the allegations in the article even after the magazine produced an audio tape of the interview with what appeared to be Winata’s voice.

In a related incident, the daily Koran Tempo, a member of Tempo’s publishing group, lost a legal battle with Winata in January. The newspaper was convicted of libeling Winata in an article published in February 2003 about Winata’s alleged interest in opening a casino. On January 20, the South Jakarta District Court ordered the newspaper to pay a record-setting US$1 million in damages. This highly disproportionate fine is being appealed, but the ruling alarmed local journalists and international observers alike.

As Your Excellency knows well, the press laws in Indonesia’s Criminal Code date from the Dutch colonial era, when they were used to suppress dissent. These harsh defamation laws are out of place in modern, democratic Indonesia. They contradict the rights protected under the constitution and serve only to cast your administration in a negative light, both at home and in the world community.

As an independent organization dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, CPJ calls on Your Excellency to defend Indonesian journalists’ hard-won reforms for press freedom. Disagreements between the press and public figures should never be brought to criminal court; rather, they should be resolved in civil court, with appropriate limits on damages. The public’s right to know is threatened when public figures such as Winata can utilize criminal laws to silence their critics.

During this crucial year, as Indonesia goes to the polls to vote for its first directly elected president, we urge you to reaffirm your commitment to the democratic principles of press freedom by working to banish criminal defamation laws to the history books.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.


Ann Cooper
Executive Director