Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
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Indonesia’s vibrant and independent media environment was offset in 2009 by the continued use of criminal defamation laws and the 2008 Information and Electronic Transfers (ITE) Law to curtail freedom of expression in electronic and social media. Violence against journalists declined slightly in 2009, and freedoms of speech and the press are guaranteed by the constitution and the 1999 Press Law, but media activists expressed concern about proposed and existing legislation that threatened these rights. A state secrets bill faced such strong resistance from civil society groups that discussions on it were suspended at the end of the year. The bill gave no concrete definition of state secrets, but specified harsh punishments for public officials and firms found to have leaked them.
While the ITE Law was originally designed to protect electronic business transactions, its vague definition of defamation allows it to be used against citizens who express opinions via electronic and social media. One of the six individuals prosecuted under the law in 2009 was housewife Prita Mulyasari, who was arrested in May and charged with circulating defamatory statements online about a private hospital in Banten province. Under Article 27, paragraph 3 of the law, she faced up to six years in prison and a penalty of 1 billion rupiah (US$98,000). After she was handed a 204 million rupiah fine in a civil court, supporters created a page on the social-networking site Facebook and collected donations on her behalf. The hospital ultimately dropped its lawsuit, and Prita won a parallel case in criminal court. However, on May 5, the Constitutional Court rejected a petition by Indonesia’s largest journalists’ union, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), to revoke Article 27, paragraph 3 of the ITE Law. As a result, heavier punishments could be levied for defamation via the internet than in other types of media.
Despite a 2005 Supreme Court decision to use the Press Law for the settlement of all media disputes, Articles 311 and 317 of the criminal code continue to be used to file defamation cases against journalists and others. In July 2009 the East Jakarta District Court sentenced two businessmen, Kho Seng Seng and Winny Kwee, to six-month suspended jail terms for defaming a property developer. In September, Jakarta police began a criminal defamation investigation against activist Usman Hamid for alleged statements he made in the court room following the acquittal of a senior intelligence official in the arsenic poisoning of renowned human rights defender Munir bin Thalib.
There were also a number of positive defamation rulings during the year. The South Jakarta Supreme Court in July rejected a libel suit filed by the leader of a radical group, the Islamic Troop Command, against Koran Tempo newspaper. In September, a district court in Makassar, South Sulawesi, similarly ordered the release of journalist and activist Upi Asmaradhana after determining that he did not make defamatory statements against a local police commander. The court concluded that Upi’s statements were instead intended to criticize institutional authority in general.
In an important symbolic victory in April, the Indonesian Supreme Court overturned its earlier decision and ruled in favor of Time magazine in a US$106 million defamation suit filed by the late former dictator Suharto. The case centered on a cover story in the magazine’s May 1999 Asian edition that accused Suharto’s family of embezzling billions of dollars during his 30-year reign. The April ruling marked the end of the appeals process. The Constitutional Court made another notable decision in July, ruling that the media would be allowed to publish election-related news or advertising during the “campaign-free” cooling-off period before the presidential election. Invalidating certain articles of a 2008 election law, the court chairman found that the publishing of news is in line with the people’s right to information.
Cases of extralegal harassment against the press continue to be a concern. The AJI reported that violence against journalists had decreased to 40 documented cases in 2009, from 60 in 2008. In the worst incident, Anak Agung Prabangsa, a journalist with the daily newspaper Radar Bali, was killed after writing a series of reports on possible corruption in a local government education project. His body was found in the Bali Strait in February. In May, Balinese police arrested I Nyoman Susrama, the brother of local regent I Nenga Arnawa, who supervised the education project. Police said the victim had been invited to the suspect’s home, where he was beaten to death. Other instances of violence during the year included attacks on an SCTV television crew at the Bank of Indonesia building in Jakarta, and on four journalists who witnessed a riot by soldiers in the eastern province of Papua.
Police continued to harass and detain foreign journalists working in areas deemed sensitive. In March 2009, police in Papua arrested four Dutch journalists for violating their visa conditions and immigration regulations. The four had been covering a demonstration organized to greet the return of Nicholas Jouwe, one of the founders of the Papuan independence movement, after 40 years in exile in the Netherlands. In July, three members of a French news crew were detained in Sumatra by a local logging company’s security guards. The crew was filming the company’s purportedly illegal operations. Security personnel seized their tapes, saying they were filming company property without permission. A similar incident occurred in Sumatra’s Riau province in November, when police arrested two journalists from India’s Hindustan Times and Italy’s L’Espresso for covering a Greenpeace rally protesting illegal logging by Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP). In 2007, RAPP had successfully sued Koran Tempo magazine for defamation when it reported on the same logging operations.
In December, Indonesia’s Film Censorship Board signaled its intent to censor Balibo,a film about the 1975 execution of five foreign journalists in East Timor, allegedly carried out by Indonesian soldiers. Fearing that Balibo would cause damage to Indonesia’s diplomatic relations and “cast its military in a negative light,” senior officials in the armed forces and the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs supported the Censorship Board. In response, AJI scheduled screenings of the film in numerous venues around the country. Also in December, the Attorney General’s Office banned five books on religion, history, and politics on the grounds that they could “erode the government’s authority or cause public disorder.” The bans outraged advocates of freedom of expression, and a group of 82 high-profile activists, lawyers, journalists, and clerics signed a petition demanding the end of such regulations.
In general, the Indonesian public can access a variety of news sources and perspectives, provided by a significant number of private media outlets. However, there is ongoing concern about the ability of large corporations and powerful individuals to control press content, either indirectly through the threat of lawsuits or directly through ownership. An article in the Jakarta Globe noted that two media moguls competing for the Golkar party’s chairmanship in September “publicly aired what amounted to campaign rallies on their television stations, resulting in viewers filing complaints against the programs for being overtly biased.”
In 2009, the internet, which is gaining in popularity, was accessed by 30 million people, or 8.7 percent of the population. There are no government restrictions on access, but the lack of high-speed infrastructure outside the major cities limits its use as a news source. In addition, the internet remains vulnerable to the same restrictions that apply to traditional media.