Indonesian journalist tried on religious defamation charges

New York, August 31, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the criminal defamation trial of Indonesian journalist Teguh Santosa, who faces charges of defaming Islam by posting online controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

State prosecutors outlined the criminal charges, which under Indonesia’s penal code carry a possible five years in prison, at the trial’s opening hearings on Wednesday in the capital, Jakarta. Santosa, editor of Rakyat Merdeka’s online edition, posted the drawings on February 2, 2006, but removed them from the Web site and issued a public apology after local Muslim groups protested.

The cartoons, first printed in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, generated worldwide controversy and prompted numerous retaliatory actions against publications that reprinted them. Worldwide, CPJ found at least nine publications were closed or suspended and 10 journalists were criminally charged. Punitive actions, including censorship orders and harassment, were reported in 13 countries, CPJ found.

Santosa will begin to present his defense in the case on September 6, according to the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), an Indonesian-based press freedom organization that is closely monitoring the trial. Articles on defamation in Indonesia’s criminal code are a holdover from the country’s harsh colonial era, when authorities arbitrarily applied the law to punish unauthorized publications.

Santosa was held and interrogated by Indonesian authorities on July 19 and released the following day after AJI, CPJ, and other press freedom groups protested his detention. At the time, officials in the president’s office and the attorney general’s office claimed they were surprised by Santosa’s detention and blamed lower-ranking officials in the prosecutor’s office for pursuing the case, AJI said.

“We call on Indonesian authorities to abandon these inappropriate criminal charges against our colleague Teguh Santosa and allow him to return to his work without fear of reprisal,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “While we recognize the sensitivity of these drawings, there is no justification for imposing criminal sanctions against journalists for what they publish.”