Indonesia has a free press, but several legal decisions have caused concerns. Former dictator Suharto won a case against Time Asia and a journalist was sentenced to six months in prison for “defamation”. The still powerful army has done its utmost to ensure continuing impunity for past crimes, particularly in East Timor.
The Supreme Court in September sentenced Time Asia magazine to pay damages of more than 100 million US dollars to former dictator Suharto for “harming his reputation and honour”. The case went back to 1999 when the magazine reported the Suharto family had transferred some of the 73 billion dollars embezzled during his 32 years in power from Switzerland to Austria. Suharto had sought damages of 27 billion dollars. This astonishing decision reawakened memories of the dark days the Indonesian press went through when it was gagged every time it raised the issue of corruption and nepotism in the ruling family. The Supreme Court verdict overturned two previous rulings in the magazine’s favour and sentenced six Time Inc. Asia employees to publish apologies in the Indonesian and international editions of the magazines. Suharto’s death, in January 2008, should result in the file being closed.
On the other hand, Erwin Arnada, editor of the Indonesian edition of Playboy was in April acquitted of publishing indecent photos. The judge rejected the complaint which should have been lodged under the press law. Islamist groups demonstrated throughout the trial and made death threats against Arnada.
Prison sentences for “defamation”
One journalist, Risang Bima Wijaya, was on 9 September arrested and sent to prison for six months under a section of the criminal law on defamation. The sentence had been handed down in connection with a 2004 case in which he accused an executive director of a newspaper of sexual harassment of a female employee. He is serving his sentence at Yogyakarta jail. Bersihar Lubis, an editorialist on the daily Koran Tempo, is facing a prison sentence for having insulted the office of the prosecutor general after saying that it had intervened to ban a scholastic book.
The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) reacted to these trials with a campaign entitled, “Stop criminalisation of the Press” condemning the use of criminal law in press cases. The AJI is also opposed to some articles of the new electoral law which provide for prison sentences for journalists who publish news between the end of the election campaign and polling day.
Investigative journalism is gradually gaining ground, but it is on occasion threatened by violations of the protection of sources. Metta Dharmasaputra of the newspaper Tempo, spoke out in September against tapping of his mobile phone by police after he revealed a case of tax fraud implicating the powerful businessman, Sukanto Tanoto.
The army protects its criminals
The Indonesian army, which was implicated in the death of at least seven foreign journalists in East Timor, has rejected the conclusions of a new Australian investigation into the death of five reporters in Balibo, East Timor in October 1975, which concluded that it was a “war crime” committed by the Indonesian army. A spokesman at the foreign ministry reacted by saying that the investigation would not change the country’s stance on the issue. “This court has a very limited jurisdiction and this decision will not change anything,” he said. Senior Indonesian officials, including a former army captain who afterwards became a minister, and the governor of Jakarta, have been implicated in this quintuple killing which preceded the Indonesia army’s occupation of East Timor.