Indonesia detains online news editor over prophet drawings

New York, July 20, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the detention of Teguh Santosa, chief editor of Rakyat Merdeka Online, for posting cartoons that depicted the Prophet Mohammad.

Indonesian police on July 19 detained Santosa after questioning him for three hours about his role in the posting of three controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that were first published by the Danish newspaper Jylland Posten and later sparked protests at Danish embassies in various Muslim countries, including Indonesia.

The prosecutor’s office in Jakarta ordered Santosa’s detention on charges that his role in posting the cartoons violated articles 156 and 156a of Indonesia’s criminal code, which allows for five years imprisonment for “expressing feelings of hostility, hatred or contempt against ethnic groups or religions,” according to information compiled by the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI).

Santosa published the cartoons on Rakyat Merdeka’s online edition on February 2, 2006, but later removed them after a number of Muslim groups protested in front of the news organization’s Jakarta-based offices, according to AJI. The radical Islamic Front Defenders later filed a complaint with police over the cartoons, which they claimed offended Muslim sensitivities. It was unclear why Indonesian authorities had waited more than five months to act on the charges filed against Santosa.

“We call upon the Indonesian government to immediately drop these charges against our colleague Teguh Santosa,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Although we understand the subject matter is highly sensitive, jailing journalists is not a solution to misgivings and anger the cartoons have engendered.”

AJI research shows that radical Islamic groups have recently emerged as a potent new threat to Indonesia’s press freedom, which is protected and guaranteed by the liberal 1999 Press Law. “The jailing of Santosa is not a religious or internal security issue, but a press freedom issue,” AJI president Heru Hendratmoko told CPJ.

Indonesia’s criminal code contains as many as 45 different articles which can be used by government authorities to criminalize journalists and the media, including draconian laws such as articles 156 and 156a left over from the country’s colonial era.

In May, CPJ reported that worldwide at least nine publications were closed or suspended and 10 journalists were criminally charged in response to publishing versions of one or more of the cartoons. Punitive actions, including censorship orders and harassment, were reported in 13 countries, CPJ found. In most cases—such as the imprisonment of Yemeni editor Mohammed al-Asaadi—governments used the cartoon controversy as pretext to retaliate against the press, curry favor with Islamists, and deflect public attention from domestic problems.

Read CPJ’s report, “Drawing Fire.”