Attacks on the Press 2010: Indonesia

Top Developments
• Nation slides backward on press freedom; censorship threats emerge.
• Three reporters murdered and magazine attacked, all with impunity.

Key Statistic
2: Years’ imprisonment given to Playboy Indonesia editor in a politicized prosecution.

Indonesia slipped backward on press freedom as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government sought to balance progressive desires for an industrialized society with the expectations of the country’s conservative Islamic population. Three reporters were killed with impunity in rural areas, a magazine was attacked after questioning the financial holdings of top national police officers, and the editor of the defunct Playboy Indonesia was jailed in a politically motivated case. Threats of censorship emerged as some officials called for restrictions on Internet activity. And while the Constitutional Court struck down elements of a Suharto-era book-banning law, it left the government empowered to ban books with court approval.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
Partisan Journalism
And the Cycle
of Repression

Country Summaries
Sri Lanka
Other nations

In the capital, Jakarta, the appearance of an online sex video of a pop star and two television personalities early in the year led to renewed calls for restrictions on Internet content. A bill to do that had been on the table in 2009 but was pulled back after polls showed that the public was overwhelmingly against the move. The original bill had been put forward by Communication and Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring, a leader of the conservative Prosperous Justice Party. No formal legislation was proposed by late year, but the tension between conservative and progressive elements was laid bare.

A similar dynamic was at work in the conviction of Erwin Arnada, editor of Playboy Indonesia, on charges of publishing indecent pictures in a 2006 issue of the magazine.

Arnada began serving a two-year prison term in October, after the Supreme Court reversed two lower court acquittals. The magazine, which closed in mid-2007 after printing just 10 issues, had come under fire from the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI. CPJ and other press groups expressed concern that Arnada’s prosecution was politically motivated and urged on by conservative groups such as the FPI. In comments made to The New York Times, FPI leader Ahmad Shobri Lubis acknowledged that Playboy Indonesia‘s photographs were less revealing than those printed in many other Indonesian publications. Defense lawyers asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling, a case that was pending in late year.

“Despite being unjustly treated as a dangerous criminal and imprisoned, I have to remain strong,” Arnada wrote from Cipinang Prison in a November piece published on the CPJ Blog. “Luckily, I see a lot of support from local and international organizations stating my innocence. This support has made me strong and helped me to survive in prison. Now I fill my days with reading books, writing a journal, and praying. For these are the only things I can do in here while waiting for my ruling review to be accepted by the Supreme Court.”

The courts also addressed a pivotal book-banning case. In December 2009, the attorney general’s office banned five books for their political content under powers that had been in place since the Suharto era, which ended in 1998. Twenty more books were under evaluation, and most would have been banned, too, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office, were it not for a January 8 public statement from 82 human rights activists, journalists, and academics calling for the law to be struck down, local and international media reported.

The judiciary’s response was mixed. In October, the Constitutional Court revoked the attorney general’s unchecked power to ban books, calling it “the approach of an authoritarian state, not one based on law.” But the court ruled narrowly on the issue, finding that the attorney general may still monitor printed material and request that lower courts issue bans.

Indonesian media reported widely on a standoff between the national police force and Tempo magazine, which published a cover story in June that detailed the financial holdings of high-ranking police officers. Accompanied by an illustration of a uniformed officer with piggy banks, the story was headlined, “Overweight piggy banks of police officers.” In an apparently well-organized effort, groups of men in civilian clothes sought to buy up newsstand copies en masse in Jakarta; Tempo countered by printing more copies. The threat grew darker, though, when unidentified assailants tossed three gasoline bombs at Tempo‘s offices. No injuries were reported, but no arrests were made in the attack. The head of the police public relations department denied involvement, asserting without evidence that the magazine staged the attack as a marketing gimmick. Police briefly filed criminal defamation charges against the magazine in connection with the story, but soon dropped the case.

Three journalists working in remote areas were murdered with impunity. In December, the badly bruised body of Alfrets Mirulewan was found on a secluded beach in Kisar, in the Maluku Islands. The editor had gone missing two days earlier while reporting on allegedly unlawful fuel sales, according to news accounts. Ridwan Salamun, a correspondent for Sun TV, was stabbed while covering violent clashes in August between local villagers in the Tual area of the Maluku Islands. He was using a television camera when he was attacked in the middle of a melee, the official Antara news agency reported.

And in July, a search team recovered the body of reporter Ardiansyah Matra’is from a river in the small town of Merauke, on the southern tip of Papua province. Matra’is, who worked for the local broadcaster Merauke TV, had been missing for two days. He and at least three other journalists had received threatening text messages during recent, hotly contested local elections, according to the Indonesian Alliance of Independent Journalists. The news website Kompas cited one threat as saying: “To cowardly journalists, never play with fire if you don’t want to be burned. If you still want to make a living on this land, don’t do weird things. We have data on all of you and be prepared for death.” No arrests were reported in any of the three murders.