Indonesians made history in 2004 by voting in democratic elections for Parliament in April and the presidency in July and September. But a natural catastrophe of unprecedented scope cast a pall over the archipelago nation in late December, when a tsunami killed at least 115,000 people.
Hardest hit was Aceh Province, where 80 employees of Serambi Indonesia, almost half of the paper's staff, died in the December 26 disaster. Since its founding in the early 1990s, the Indonesian-language newspaper was one of the only sources of information from war-torn Aceh. The government, which had banned foreign journalists from covering the separatist rebellion there, allowed the international media into Aceh to report on the devastation.
The tragedy overshadowed a difficult year for the Indonesian press. Stunning guilty verdicts in a series of civil and criminal defamation trials delivered major setbacks to the media. The most important legal actions stemmed from two articles about influential businessman Tomy Winata that ran in 2003; one in the prestigious newsweekly Tempo, the other in its sister daily, Koran Tempo. Both publications, which are owned by the PT Tempo Inti Media Harian company, are run by well-known editor Bambang Harymurti.
In January, a court convicted the daily Koran Tempo of defamation for a February 2003 report saying that Tomy, as he is commonly known, had applied to open a gambling den in South Sulawesi Province. The Central Jakarta District Court ordered the paper's owners to pay a record-breaking US$1 million in damages to Tomy and to publish apologies for three consecutive days. Koran Tempo appealed the verdict, but the exorbitant damages—which the court ordered be paid in U.S. dollars instead of Indonesian rupiahs—sent a warning to all publications and broadcasters that cover Indonesia's powerful elite.
The next strike against the Tempo group came on March 18, when Tempo was convicted of libel for a controversial March 2003 article titled "Is Tomy in Tanah Abang?" Tomy launched as many as six separate legal actions against Tempo, including two criminal cases, in retaliation for the story, which cited allegations that the businessman stood to profit from a fire at a large textile market. Although the article included a denial from Tomy, the judge ruled that Tempo had not covered both sides of the story. The court ordered the magazine to apologize to Tomy and pay damages of almost US$60,000 in rupiahs. With its legal bills mounting, Tempo contested the ruling, and on September 14, a court dismissed the charges.
But the magazine faced other ominous legal challenges. Three of the magazine's journalists appeared in another Jakarta court to face criminal charges stemming from the same article. The threat of jail loomed for Tempo Chief Editor Harymurti, Editor T. Iskandar Ali, and reporter Ahmad Taufik, a 1995 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award. They were charged with spreading false information and provoking social discord, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, and defamation, which carries a maximum four-year sentence.
With the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, a regional press freedom advocacy group, CPJ helped bring a group of journalists from Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia to attend the September 16 verdict to show international support for the Tempo journalists. Under intense international pressure, the court acquitted Taufik and Iskandar but convicted Harymurti of defamation and sentenced him to one year in prison. Harymurti pledged to fight the ruling before Indonesia's Supreme Court. At year's end, he was free pending appeal.
In the wake of these landmark verdicts, local and international press freedom activists called on government officials to overturn Indonesia's colonial-era insult and criminal defamation laws, and to set a legal limit on the amount of damages allowed in libel settlements.
Despite these setbacks, the Indonesian press played a generally positive role in the 2004 elections by monitoring fraud, educating voters about political candidates, and helping to ensure a peaceful electoral process, according to elections monitors and local journalists. Still, a study by the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU-EOM) found a number of instances of bias in both print and broadcast media in the September 20 runoff between incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri and retired Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The state-run television channel TVRI ran coverage slanted toward Megawati and aired ads against Yudhoyono, also known by his acronym, SBY, during a cooling-off period when such ads were prohibited, the EU-EOM study reported. Yudhoyono won the September poll by a wide margin.
By allowing the state to prosecute several cases of criminal libel during her time in office, Megawati disappointed many in the press, local journalists told CPJ. She demonstrated her intolerance for critics again in the run-up to the first round of presidential elections in July by expelling terrorism expert and longtime Indonesia resident Sidney Jones in June. Megawati was under pressure during the campaign because of her perceived inaction against terrorist threats; Jones, the head of the Jakarta office of the think tank International Crisis Group, highlighted the president's shortcomings by writing a well-respected series of reports on active terrorist groups inside Indonesia.
Local and foreign journalists continued to face daunting obstacles as they tried to cover the ongoing strife in Aceh between the Indonesian military (known by the Indonesian acronym TNI) and rebels with the separatist Free Aceh Movement (known as GAM). Martial law had been in effect in Aceh since military operations were launched there in May 2003.
In April, during the parliamentary elections, restrictions were tightened further. Foreign journalists were required to obtain six different documents and approvals before being allowed to visit the region. Even after martial law was lifted later in the spring, pressure from local commanders on the ground; the logistical challenges of covering an increasingly remote conflict; and growing reader fatigue added to the challenges of getting reliable information out of the region and into the media, according to local journalists.
After months of failed negotiations between TNI officials and GAM rebels, RCTI cameraman Fery Santoro was safely released by the rebels in May after 10 months in captivity. Santoro was kidnapped in July 2003 with RCTI senior reporter Ersa Siregar, their driver, and two Indonesian officers' wives after a massive Indonesian military offensive was launched in May 2003. The journalists' driver escaped in early December 2003, and the two wives were freed in February. Siregar was shot and killed during a gun battle between Indonesian military forces and the rebels on December 29, 2003.
Local journalists and press freedom activists, including the Alliance of Independent Journalists, played an active role in Santoro's release. A group of Indonesian journalists traveled to Aceh to ensure his safe handover, and several reporters even offered themselves as collateral to GAM rebels when the release was threatened. They voluntarily stayed overnight with the rebels and were then released.
While campaigning for office, Yudhoyono appeared to support press freedom. In public statements at the time of the final verdict in the Tempo case, Yudhoyono said that journalists should not be jailed because of their work, according to the English-language daily The Jakarta Post. He also visited the Tempo office before he was elected in a show of support for the embattled publication. Yet soon after his election victory in September, his commitment to free expression came into question. Citing security concerns, the Indonesian government imposed a ban in November on foreign journalists traveling to Aceh and to Papua Province, which also has a militant separatist movement. According to The Washington Post, the international press has also been barred from Maluku and North Maluku provinces, and from the towns of Sampit, Poso, and Palu. The decision was made just days after Yudhoyono won the presidency, the Post reported.
Overall, the press in Indonesia has flourished since the fall of the authoritarian President Suharto six years ago. Still, the tenor and professionalism of the country's print and broadcast media are ongoing subjects of debate within the journalism community and Indonesian society itself.
Graphic photographs in newspapers and lurid television shows featuring violent and sexual content are testing the boundaries of taste in the world's most populous Muslim country. Low salaries for journalists, heated competition in a saturated media market, and a lack of universal standards are blamed for what some observers say is increasingly "indecent" content. The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission instituted an ethics code requiring broadcasters to abide by decency standards, which include airing violent and sexually explicit programming only after 10 p.m. Broadcasters largely ignored its edicts initially, prompting the commission to issue a warning in October that it would revoke the licenses of those that fail to comply in 2005.