Indonesian press, freedom of expression under attack

At around 2.30am on June 28, a group of men arrived at a major news distribution outlet in Central Jakarta. “We want to buy all copies of this magazine”, said one, pointing to Tempo, hot off the press with a cover story titled “Police officers’ fat bank accounts”.

The men ended up buying 2425 copies. “They were police officers. They insisted on buying our entire stock, no matter what the price”, said Rozak, one of the sellers, who inflated the price to 40,000 rupiah (US$4.44) from the regular 27,000 per copy. “They paid almost 100 million rupiah in cash.”

Another distributor had a similar story. In all, the entire Jakarta print run of around 30,000 copies was bought that morning. Other witnesses testified that the operation continued into the afternoon with uniformed police combing the streets in marked patrol cars ensuring no copies had been missed. Similar buy-ups by police officers were reported in the West Java city of Bandung and in Bali.

Sourced on data from the anti-money laundering agency PPATK, the magazine’s cover story featured a report on senior police generals allegedly amassing private bank accounts in the millions of dollars. The police — whose already tarnished image had taken a lashing in recent months over a series of corruption scandals — claimed the disappearing magazines were a publicity stunt by the publisher.

Ominous trend

While this may seem a rather clumsy attempt to restrict the public’s access to information, it is part of a much darker trend over recent years to curtail a burgeoning and vibrant media, ranging from draconian legislation and criminal defamation suits to intimidation and violence against journalists.

Indonesia’s media grew exponentially after the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, when the government gave up its tight control through press permits and content reviews. According to the Jakarta Globe, there are now more than 2,000 radio stations, 1,000 print publications, 115 television stations and an ever growing number of online news portals. Although around 10 prominent business groups control the majority, local publications by progressive and left-wing groups and independent web sites and blogs have proliferated. That said, Indonesia still ranked a dismal 101 out of 175 countries surveyed by the group Reporters Without Borders late last year.

Criminal definition laws

Although Indonesia’s constitution explicitly protects freedom of expression, the Suharto dictatorship invoked and even augmented the provisions of the criminal code that former Dutch colonial administrators used to suppress opposition to colonial rule. While some of the worst of these, such as the infamous “hate sowing” articles on insulting the head of state, were scrapped by the Constitutional Court in December 2007, the criminal defamation articles remain on the books.

“There are twice as many articles on criminal defamation today than there were in the Dutch colonial era”, former Press Council deputy chairperson Leo Batubara told the May 2 Jakarta Globe. “Despite the enactment of the 1999 Press Law and the 2008 Freedom of Information Law, police continue to charge and imprison reporters for criminal defamation.”

A May 3 report by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Turning Critics into Criminals: The Human Rights Consequences of Criminal Defamation Law in Indonesia”, documents recent cases in which criminal libel, slander and “insult” laws have been used to silence criticism. Charges have been filed against individuals for publicly demonstrating against corruption, writing letters to editors complaining of fraud, registering formal complaints with the authorities or publishing news reports on sensitive subjects. In many of the cases examined in the report, the complaints appear to have been used to retaliate against people who had made allegations of corruption, fraud or misconduct against powerful interests, businesses or government officials.

In one case, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) charged an anti-corruption activist who had identified possible discrepancies in its accounting of funds recovered from graft cases. The police initially did not investigate the charge, but nine months later, shortly after the activists called for the resignation of the police chief in a separate campaign, the activist was summoned for questioning on the defamation complaint.

In October 2009, after two Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) activists criticised law enforcement officials for investigating two deputies from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) on abuse of power charges, police summoned them for questioning on a criminal defamation complaint that had been filed against them in January 2009. The timing suggests that authorities hoped to deter criticism of their trumped-up charges against the KPK officials, which were later shown to have been based on fabricated evidence.

Critics say dozens of people have been victimised. “The plaintiffs are mostly powerful people such as government officials, businessmen and politicians, while the accused are mostly workers, activists and journalists”, Margiyono from the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) told the Jakarta Post on May 4.

HRW also found that criminal defamation investigations and prosecutions can have a dramatic impact on those accused and a chilling effect on people’s willingness to express critical thoughts or opinions. Some lost their jobs and found it difficult or impossible to find new work, while others had to endure lengthy prosecutions, some of which lasted for years. “Investigations and prosecutions under criminal defamation laws can have a disastrous effect on those accused”, Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at HRW, said. “The threat of imprisonment makes people think twice before speaking out against corruption and misconduct.”


There are also several other laws, notably the Law on Securing of Printed Materials whose Contents Could Disturb Public Order, which gives AGO the authority to ban books deemed to “disturb public order” or threaten “state unity”. Last December the AGO banned five books, including John Rossa’s Pretext for Mass Murder, which contradicted the government’s version of the alleged 1965 communist coup.

The Film Censorship Board has the authority to ban films on similar grounds and in November 2006 banned three documentary films about East Timor and one about Aceh. More recently, in December the Australian movie Balibo was prevented from being shown in Indonesian theatres.

Internet law

In 2008 the parliament enacted the Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE) Law with the harshest penalties to date for defamation that appears on line: up to six years’ jail and fines of up to 1 billion rupiah (US$106,000). The law also contains the only defamation-related offence under Indonesian law for which pre-trial detention is permitted.

These penalties pose an increasingly powerful threat to private citizens expressing their views on line, as Prita Mulyasari discovered in May 2009. Mulyasari, a mother of two small children, was jailed for three weeks and spent over 12 months in the criminal justice process for simply writing a private e-mail to friends complaining about the care she had received at the Omni International Hospital.

A few days after the Tangerang District Court ruled in the hospital’s favour in a civil case and fined Mulyasari 312 million rupiah ($33,072), on May 13 prosecutors charged her under the ITE law, which allowed police to imprison her while she awaited trial. Angered that someone could be jailed simply for sending an e-mail, working mother Ika Ardina created a campaign page on Facebook. The page drew hundreds of thousands of fans and led to several other similar groups and pages.

The public outrage forced politicians, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to urge law enforcers to expedite the legal process. Under growing public pressure, Mulyasari was released but then lost a civil court appeal and was ordered to pay 204 million rupiah in damages to Omni. That sparked more Facebook outrage and a movement to collect coins to pay the fine. Thousands of people pitched in, and the movement collected more than 650 million rupiah in coins, three times the amount needed. Even Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party felt the need to make a contribution.

Omni eventually dropped its civil suit and in late December Mulyasari was cleared of all criminal charges. But critics say the Mulyasari case was an exception and according to AJI, the number of defamation cases related to posts on Facebook and Twitter doubled in 2009.

Gecko vs crocodile

In November 2009, thousands of Indonesians took to the streets to protest the arrests of two KPK commissioners and demand that Yudhoyono take a stand against corruption. Once again the internet played a key role in mobilising the campaign. A Facebook page was launched after the pair was arrested in late October for alleged abuse of power.

Featuring the logo of the “gecko vs crocodile” — a term first popularised by former national police chief of detectives Susno Duadji when he referred to the rivalry between the police and the KPK — the site and the campaign that followed galvanised a public fed up with rampant corruption. Within just 10 days the group reached 1,002,000 members, with new comments posted almost every second urging the government to take action and heaping scorn on the police and AGO. The site was also used to mobilise a series of large and angry public demonstrations. Students on a hunger strike camped out in front of the KPK headquarters vowing not to leave until the pair were set free.

The two were finally released on bail after a dramatic court hearing in early November, during which a wiretapped phone conversations aired live on television indicated that members of the police and the AGO conspired with the brother of a graft suspect to frame the KPK officials.

Restricting the internet

Not surprisingly, the authorities have set their sights on the internet, although this is being framed in the more sellable guise of “protecting children from pornography”. In 2009 there were 25 million internet users in Indonesia, the fifth highest among Asian countries.

Following the passage of the ITE law, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology proposed a regulation for government control of multimedia content. Also mooted was a plan to create a monitoring team with the power to order internet service providers to block web sites that contain content it determines is illegal. Championed by communications minister Tifatul Sembiring from the conservative Islamic-based Justice and Prosperity Party, the plan was shelved in the face of widespread public opposition.

The “Peterporn” celebrity porn scandal, however, involving two explicit clips showing a popular local rock singer having sex with two models and television presenters, revived Sembiring’s ambition to filter internet content. Speaking to reporters on June 10, Sembiring, who said the sex videos made him “feverish”, said that the country needed a rule to ban “negative” content on the web. The proposed decree would make it illegal to distribute or provide access to pornography or gambling on the internet, as well as anything that spreads religious hatred or threats and any news deemed “misleading”. It would also include a blacklist of offensive material monitored by a special task force. President Yudhoyono also signalled his support, saying on June 18 that the country must not stand “naked” before modern information technology.

On July 22 Sembiring announced that he hoped all pornographic web sites will be blocked before the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, which starts on August 11. Speaking at the presidential palace, he said the ministry was compelled by the anti-pornography law, which stipulates “that the state should protect its citizens from the dangers of pornography”. The controversial anti-pornography law, enacted in 2008, has been the subject of heated public debate, critics arguing that it is ambiguous and divisive and criminalises women.

Keystone Cops

Thumbing its nose at police, Tempo reprinted the “missing” issue along with an English edition with a cover depicting one of the piggy banks directly in the face of an anonymous senior police officer. The title of the article was changed to “Police in a Poke”, a play on the idiom “pig in a poke”.

A few days later police said they had decided not to file a threatened suit and would resolve the issue amicably through the Press Council. But Tempo vs the Keystone Cops turned ugly on July 6 when two men hurled three Molotov cocktails at the magazine’s head office. The attack was promptly dismissed by police as the work of a third party to discredit them.

Then on July 8, ICW investigator Tama Satrya Langkun was viciously attacked by four men on motorcycles, suffering multiple wounds and a head injury from a blunt object. Tama featured prominently in an ICW investigation into the police generals’ bank accounts reported by Tempo.

An independent investigation team led by the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) concluded that Tama’s attack was well planned. Kontras researcher Hariz Azhar said that a police official, identified only as “S”, and two staff members visited the ICW office on July 7. “Basically, S warned Tama about the possibility of an attack”, Azhar told the July 21 Jakarta Globe.

Another team member added that S revealed that reaction inside the national police to the ICW investigation was pretty harsh and officers had become “restless”. “S also said that ‘the Molotov cocktail attacks on the Tempo magazine offices could also happen to ICW’”, he said.

The police — who on July 16 said they had finished investigating the PPATK report and found only two of the 23 officers had received funds from illegal sources — are no nearer to solving the Tempo firebombing. On the contrary, Darwin Aritonang, a lawyer for Tempo, told the Jakarta Globe that witnesses working for the magazine claim to have been intimidated during police questioning, with one being forced to say the attack was caused by an internal rift at the magazine.