DESPITE NEW PRESS FREEDOM, EDITOR GOES TO JAIL
by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
Miangas Island, Indonesia
MIANGAS ISLAND, Indonesia, Sept. 18, 2004 - A Jakarta court decision to sentence an Indonesian editor to a year in prison for allegedly libeling a business tycoon may create a trend in this emerging democracy, whose criminal code offers plenty of opportunities for those who are not happy with the media to throw sloppy journalists in jail.
A three-member panel of judges announced Thursday (16/9) that Bambang Harymurti, the Harvard-educated chief editor of Tempo magazine, guilty for libel but spared two of his journalists. "We find the defendant guilty of disseminating libelous news and sentence him to one year in jail," presiding judge Suripto said at the conclusion of the four-month trial.
The two journalists, Teuku Iskandar Ali and Ahmad Taufik, were acquitted, with Suripto saying that while the article was libelous, the two authors could not be held responsible, as its actual publication was the responsibility of Harymurti. The judges also stressed that the defendants cannot prove the existence of a a proposal that underlies the case.
The Tempo libel suits have sparked a furor over the criminalization of press cases. "Today's ruling is a disturbing setback for Indonesia's hard-won press freedoms," said Ann Cooper of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "This guilty verdict sends the wrong message to journalists. Journalists should never be jailed for their work, and Indonesia's outdated criminal libel laws should be struck from the penal code at once," said Cooper.
According to the Aksara Foundation, a Jakarta-based think tank, which held an international seminar on slander and libel in July, more and more Indonesian politicians, businessmen, and other public figures have filed libel suits against media, using the Dutch-inherited criminal code.
"So far we have 14 charges against the media," said Nono Anwar Makarim, the chairman of the Aksara Foundation.
The tycoon, Tomy Winata, controls the widely-diversified Artha Graha business group. Rumors, however, among some journalists and businesspeople, said that he controls gambling dens in the Mangga Dua area in Jakarta. (He once challenged journalists to prove whether he has those gambling connection. None has ever takes his challenge).
When asked to comment on Harymurti's verdict, Winata said, "I myself am concerned with that legal consequences for Mas (Brother) Bambang. I just want the court to tell the public and to tell me about whether Tempo was right or wrong on its report about me."
Winata himself is a media person. He is involved in publishing the "Pilars" weekly magazine and the Jakarta daily as well as head of a television station in Jakarta. The media reports of the trial tended to favor Winata.
The report, "Ada Tomy di Tenabang?" appeared in a March 2003 edition of Tempo. The title, translated literally, means, "Is Tomy in Tenabang?"
Tenabang is a shorter name for the huge Tanah Abang market in Jakarta.
The story basically reported that Tomy Winata had submitted a proposal to renovate the Tanah Abang market three months prior to a fire that razed the market in February 2003.
Reporter Ahmed Taufik was assigned to cover the story. According to testimony in court, Taufik, himself a Tanah Abang native, met a "friend" who is an "architect-contractor," who asked to remain anonymous. He brought Taufik to meet an official who had access to the proposal. Taufik was permitted to read the document but not allowed to copy it. he testified.
Some other Tempo reporters interviewed government officials about the fire and whether Tomy Winata was indeed submitting that proposal. Those officials, including Tanah Abang figures, the Central Jakarta mayor, as well as Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso, denied the existence of such a proposal.
Winata also told a Tempo reporter that he had never made such a proposal, but reportedly confirmed the rumors that he had submitted such a proposal and "burned the market."
Taufik sent his story to his immediate editor, who gave it to copy editor Iskandar Ali. Iskandar edited the piece, partly by changing the phrase "Tanah Abang" in the title to "Tenabang" and changing the phrase "big businessman" to "scavenger extraordinaire" in the first paragraph or "lede" of the story, possibly creating the impression that Tomy Winata was an arsonist.
Media freedom advocates campaigned worldwide to protest the sentencing of Harymurti. Street protests and international condemnation have appeared frequently, but they rarely touch the fact that such cases have appeared only recently, accompnaying a new media boom in Indonesia's new democracy.
Harymurti is a graduate of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. He replaced Tempo's founding editor, Goenawan Mohamad, in 2000. Mohamad's Tempo - the equivalent of America's Time or Newsweek, was banned by the Suharto regime in 1994 but resumed publication after the fall of Suharto in 1999. Both Taufik and Mohamad are recipient of Committee for the Protection of Journalists' press freedom advocates' award for their courageous reporting during the Suharto era. Taufik's work has also appeared in The American Reporer.
Since 1998, Indonesia has seen an explosion in themedia industry since the fall of President Suharto, who ruled the country tyrannically for 33 years. The number of newspapers rose from just 256 serving 190 million people in 1998 to more than 800 in 2002. There were only six channels of television in 1998, and there were 31 by December 2003. During the Suharto era, only one government-sanctioned journalist association was allowed, but currently Indonesia's Press Council has registered some 48 journalistic organizations. The number of journalists also grown, from around 6,000 in 1998 to more than 30,000 in 2002.
The media's newfound freedom has also created a demand for sex-and-crime tabloids and television programming. Many clerics, politicians, and media critics complain about sensational reporting. Mainstream media giants, such as the Kompas Gramedia Group and the Jawa Pos Group (a subsidiary of Tempo), also publish and broadcast such programming in a bid to keep themselves ahead amid the tight new competition for advertising rupiahs.
Now things are yet more complicated, with unhappy public figures using legal channels to throw journalists in jail.