Indonesian journalists prepare for more legislative battles

Barely a month after his inauguration in 2009, reelected Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono found himself implicated in a corruption scandal involving the police and the judiciary, triggering massive protest rallies in the capital and emphasizing once more the need for the Indonesian government to be transparent in its dealings. At the very least, it emphasizes the value of a free press that enhances and encourages such transparency.

Indeed, against the backdrop of Indonesia’s latest political scandal, a need for more government accountability and a campaign against criminal defamation—especially in online media—along with vigilance over several legislative bills deemed as threats to free expression, appear to be the main concerns for the Indonesian media in 2010.
As it was in the previous two years, transparency hinges as much on access to information in Indonesia, as on the confidence of the press to do its job without fear of penalty or reprisal. But 2009 demonstrated a validity to earlier concerns among Indonesians that their laws could cut either way—on the one hand guaranteeing press freedom and greater access to information, but at the same time having seemingly conflicting provisions that would penalize the vaguely-defined “misuse” of such information.

After two years, for example, Indonesia’s Law No. 14/2008—mandating the Freedom to Access Public Information (KMIP)—will take effect this year. Law No. 14/2008 provides legal guarantees for public access to information—but it also criminalizes (with the threat of one-year jail terms) the “misuse” of the same information. When it finally comes into force in 2010, therefore, Indonesians will be anxious to see how the law will be wielded both by citizens as well as by officials.

Similarly, another law expected to come into greater play in 2010, Law No. 11/2008 on Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE), is primarily aimed at regulating electronic transactions. But it has raised concern among journalists because the law also carries possible prison terms for online defamation. Article 27 (3) and Article 45 (1) of the ITE law states that any media which distribute journalistic products containing blasphemy and defamation in electronic form can be meted a prison sentence of up to six years and/or a fine up to a maximum of 1 billion rupiah.

Online crime
In 2008, on the ITE Law’s first year of implementation, two Indonesians were charged under this law. The number of cases doubled in 2009, with four individuals charged for messages they posted in the social networking site Facebook and in the micro-blogging site Twitter.

The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) notes that the prescribed maximum sentence of six years for defamation charges under the ITE law is actually harsher than the one-year-four-month maximum imprisonment penalty prescribed under Indonesia’s Penal Code.

That reality, of course, merely adds to a long list of laws that criminalize defamation in the country—and that free speech advocates have found (and will continue to find) difficult to reverse. On 5 May 2009, The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Indonesia rejected the request to revoke article 27 paragraph (3) of the said law. Meanwhile, a litany of criminal defamation provisions remains in the country’s Criminal Code. These include provisions in laws on:

Crime against State Security (Article 212, 213, 214, 221, 222, 229, 230 to 232.).
Crime against Friendly States (Article 271, 272, 273 to 274).
Crime against Public Order (Article 283,284,285,287,288,289, 291,292, 307, 308,342, 345 and 346).
Crime against Legal Procedure (Article 327 and 328).
Crime against Public Authority (Article 407 and 408).
Crime against Decency (Article 470,  471, 472, 474, 476,483 and 484).
Slander (Article 531, 532, 534, 536, 537, 539, 540, 542 and 543.)
Crime of Publication and Printing (Article 739, 740 and 741).
Revoking the right to perform a profession (Article 91)

Sadly, such criminal defamation laws remain sharpened even as Indonesia’s more progressive Press Law crucially remains ignored and therefore weak. Though Indonesia’s Constitution guarantees press freedom, the laws that would ensure its implementation are not sufficiently detailed, according to AJI. Article 8 of the Press Law (Law no 40/1999) only states briefly that, “In carrying out his or her journalistic works, the journalist is protected by law.”

The coming year, AJI says, is therefore needed to lobby for a replacement of the said law. The journalist association is developing an alternative Press Law to the government’s official draft, and AJI said it will work to replace the Press Law with a more progressive and empowered legislation by 2011.

Until then, Indonesia’s free press and information advocates will be fighting other key battles in 2010.

Legislative agenda
Two bills to be monitored this year: the TIPITI Bill (Information Technology Criminal Act) and Media Convergence bills. Indonesian journalists are concerned that TIPITI bill carries heavier penalties for online offenses. The ITE Law will not be superseded by this bill. However, the provisions for criminal offenses under the ITE Law will be transferred to TIPITI. The sanctions, AJI said, would be harsher. Whereas the prison term under the ITE Law has a maximum of six years, the TIPITI bill provides for at least seven years’ jail time.

The Media Convergence bill, meanwhile, will consolidate the country’s Broadcasting, ITE and Telecommunication laws while also providing for the merger of the Broadcasting Commission, the Information Commission and the Indonesian Telecommunication Regulatory Body (BRTI) into a single commission. Independent media advocates are wary of the potential creation of a super-body armed with penal provisions that will have the mandate of regulating and monitoring the press, broadcast and new media, and various telecommunications platforms.

Violence against Journalists
As surely as the Indonesian media and free press advocates will remain busy and on their toes,  they will also be hard pressed to sustain and improve upon their work to create a holistically safer environment for journalists.

To their credit, 2009 saw a significant decline in the number of documented violence against journalists relative to what was seen the previous year. Despite 2009 being an election year, a time when attacks on media tend to spike, the number of attacks on Indonesian media  (physical, legal, or censorship) went down to 40 in 2009, compared to the previous year’s 60. Still AJI notes that among other attacks they monitored in 2009, there was one case of murder, 20 cases of assault, two hostage situations, and four cases of obstruction of reporting.

The lone fatality in 2009, Anak Agung Prabangsa, 45, a reporter for the “Radar Bali” daily, was found dead on Bias Tugel beach, in Bali on 16 February. Prabangsa was the fifth journalist murdered in the line of duty in the past 10 years.

Key victories for media
Still, there is no denying that the champions of free, unthreatened journalists won key victories in 2009.

On 16 April 2009, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of “Time” magazine in a US$106-million defamation suit filed against the magazine by former strongman Suharto. The case stemmed from an issue in May 1999 which alleged that Suharto and his family pocketed billions of dollars while he was in power.

In July, the South Jakarta Supreme Court rejected a libel suit filed by Islamic Troop commander Munarman against local newspaper “Koran Tempo”. Munarman filed the civil suit on 3 June 2008 due to images published in “Koran Tempo” showing Munarman strangling a man during a rally in Jakarta.

Meanwhile, a Makassar court acquitted journalist and free expression advocate Upi Asmaradhana from charges that he had defamed Gen. Sisno Adiwinoto, former commander of the South Sulawesi Regional Police Office. Gen. Sisno charged Upi with defamation on 10 November 2008 after the journalist organized rallies against the police officer to protest his statements calling on government officials to sue journalists.

Another key victory in 2009 saw President Yudhoyono relenting on 15 September to have a controversial State Secrets bill withdrawn after widespread protests from civil society and the media. Had the bill been passed into law, it would have proscribed the death penalty to anyone found guilty of leaking state secrets, aside from a fine of up to Rp5 billion (US$505,000). Speech and information advocates had argued that the broad provisions of the bill would have made it too easy for officials to deny journalists’ access to information. Moreover, that, coupled with the harsh penalties, would have sent a chilling message to the media that likely would induce self-censorship and active harassment of the press.

Meanwhile, the criminal defamation charges filed by Reymond Teddy against several media outlets, including the print publications “Kompas”, “Warta Kota”, “Suara Pembaruan”, and “Seputar Indonesia”; TV station RCTI; and websites detik.com and Kompas Cyber, for calling him a “gambling lord” are still on-going.

AJI said that instead of filing criminal defamation charges against the media, Teddy should have used the right to reply option mechanism, instead.

Professional ethics a major concern
Beyond the legal and legislative battles, Indonesian press advocates realize that much of their campaign will have to be inward-looking as well. As in 2009 and in previous years, professional ethics remains a major concern for AJI, especially considering it as a real factor in efforts to reduce violence against journalists.

In 2009 AJI documented incidents of bribery, sensational infotainments infringing on an individual’s right of privacy, crime reports that exploit violence, pornographic content, and others. AJI says ethics, respect of citizens’ right to privacy, and awareness of public sensibilities can only help a free media to be better appreciated, and therefore better defended, by their own audiences and the public in general.

The Complaint and Code of Ethics Enforcement Sub-Division of the Press Council deals with the conduct of Indonesian journalists as mandated under Article 15 point 2 c of the Press Law.

The Press Council said the number of complaints directed to the Press Council represents a high level of public awareness to use the dispute settlement mechanism such as right to reply and mediation. On the other hand, it also indicates the need for journalists to act more professionally.

Hopefully, the laws and lawmakers and leaders of the land will be as committed to protecting the integrity of the press and its freedom.

(SEAPA thanks the Association of Independent Journalists for its contribution to this report.)