Despite his statements in support of press freedom, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took no serious steps to act on them. On the contrary, the penalties laid down by the criminal code for press offences were strengthened and a new anti-terror law gave far-reaching powers to the security forces.
Although relatively secure from the violence that scars the country, the press still had to contend with an escalation in defamation claims. Two journalists on a weekly on the island of Sumatra were imprisoned for nine months. Despite a recommendation from the president of the Supreme Court, the magistrates prefer to try journalists under the criminal code rather than under the more liberal press law.
Businessmen and politicians sometimes mobilise crowds of supporters to harass the media. Sulawesi island’s main daily, Radar Sulteng, was forced to suspend publication in June 2005 after several thousand people demonstrated in front of its offices.
The government started a reform of the criminal code to include heavier prison sentences for press offences, particularly defamation and disclosing state secrets. Security forces were given new powers, especially monitoring of communications in response to terror attacks by Jemaah Islamiya. A number of sources confirmed that this surveillance was frequently extended to the Jakarta-based foreign press.
The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Aceh, in the north of Sumatra, in December 2004, paradoxically led to the province being opened up to the foreign press. Despite some restrictions imposed by the army, which resulted in around six journalists being arrested or expelled, the international spotlight broke a news blackout in the region that had lasted more than one year. The media in Aceh, particularly the daily Serambi Indonesia, raised their profile by providing information to survivors of the tsunami about the aid provided by international organisations and the government.
Further, the August 2005 peace agreement between the government and the guerrillas in Aceh had beneficial effects for press freedom, as the media were less and less targeted by the security forces and the separatists.
In a country, mired in corruption, the press has not been spared. The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) launched a campaign against corruption within the profession in December. It accused officials and companies of earmarking funds to buy positive reports and accused colleagues of practising “envelope journalism”. For its part, the government once again postponed adoption of a law on access to information that would make it easier for the press to investigate corruption.