“Don’t jail journalists” Free Press Advocates Tell Government

[Original title: “Don’t jail journalists” Say Free Press Advocates to Indonesia]

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the global organisation representing over 500,000 journalists worldwide, has launched a global campaign to demand that Indonesia doesn’t jail its journalists under draconian defamation laws which allow journalists to be tried in both the criminal and civil jurisdictions.

” ‘Don’t jail journalists’ is the message that we are sending to the Government of Indonesia today: IFJ affiliates around the world speak with one voice on this demand,” IFJ President Christopher Warren said on August 16.

“Indonesia needs to recognise that it is completely inappropriate to send journalists to jail for defamation: defamation should be tried only in the civil, not criminal, jurisdiction,” said Warren.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), the Bangkok-based alliance of free press advocates, said imprisonment for defamation is unconscionable in any society that purports to value freedom of expression and of the press.

“Even as SEAPA urges the Indonesian courts to ensure a fair trial for the Tempo journalists, we remain more seriously concerned by the official criminalisation of defamation in Indonesia, and the excessive penalties-imprisonment and crippling fines among them-that come with such criminalisation,” SEAPA Chairman Kavi Chongkittavorn said in a letter faxed to the office of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri on Aug. 16.

Journalists Bambang Harymurti, T. Iskandar Ali and Ahmad Taufik appeared in court in Jakarta to defend themselves against a defamation action brought by businessman Tomy Winata over an article published in Tempo magazine on 3-9 March 2003. The article aired allegations that Winata stood to benefit from a fire in a textile market.
The journalists face up to four years jail each if found guilty. Prosecutors are arguing for a two-year term each.

SEAPA said it was dismayed by the refusal of Indonesian leaders to recognise the chilling effect this has on the Indonesian press, a pillar and guardian of Indonesian democracy. Clearly, Winata himself-a public figure-has repeatedly used the very threat of defamation suits to escape public scrutiny and to silence critics and the press in general, it said.

IFJ member organisations worldwide on Aug 16 participated in a campaign calling on the Indonesian government to remove defamation as a criminal offence and restrict financial damages in civil defamation to sensible and rational amounts. They are also calling on the removal of the crime of “insulting the President or Vice-President” from the criminal code.

Journalists’ organisations in Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Cyprus, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Greece, the United Kingdom and the United States and others delivered letters of protest to the Indonesian embassies in their countries.

“Indonesia must act immediately to reform its draconian defamation laws: defamation should be dealt with under the Indonesian Press Law, not under Indonesia’s criminal code,” said IFJ President Christopher Warren in the letter to Megawati.

In the letter to the Indonesian President, delivered to the President’s office on Aug 16 by the Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI, the IFJ affiliate in Indonesia), the IFJ says: “The rise of repressive regimes in Indonesia have historically been heralded by a restriction of press freedom, including an over-zealous use of spurious legal avenues to lock up defenders of free speech.”

“The journalists of the world are today calling on your government to act in the interests of genuine freedom of the press in Indonesia and repeal these regressive laws,” the IFJ said.