Journalists in Indonesia

In the Dock

New challenges to press freedom in Indonesia have been posed by the increasing influence of private businessmen and media entrepreneurs as well as their frequent use of lawsuits against investigative journalists. Arian Fariborz reports from Jakarta

Heru Hendratmoko (photo: Arian Fariborz)
Heru Hendratmoko of the independent journalists' organisation AJI worries about government control over the Indonesian media

​​Since the fall of the authoritarian Suharto regime in 1998, Indonesia has seen the development of a diverse and lively media landscape – one of the freest in the whole of Asia. Censorship and the closure of newspapers belong to the past. The introduction of a law on press rights in 1999 anchored freedom of the press as a civil right and was a milestone in the island republic's young democracy.

New statistics, however, indicate that press freedoms and the safety of journalists are no longer a matter to be taken for granted. In 2007, the number of attacks on journalists rose in comparison to the previous year from 53 to 75 incidents. This figure was recently presented in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta by Heru Hendratmoko, chairman of the independent journalist organization AJI (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen).

The association, which regularly observes the media situation in Indonesia, includes in its figure not only physical attacks, but also threats and lawsuits against members of the media.

Lack of legal safeguards

Above all, journalists in this most populous Muslim country are now worried by increasing legal uncertainty. The Ministry of Information, which had strictly controlled the media, was abolished after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1999. In the same year, a national law was introduced to protect freedom of the press. However, it is now being applied far less frequently, complains Heru Hendratmoko.

Bambang Harymurti (photo: Arian Fariborz)
Because he published cover stories about corruption and nepotism, TEMPO editor-in-chief Bambang Harymurti was brought before court

​​"It is true that since 1999, we have had a very good media law that protects the freedom of the press in our country. Yet, unfortunately, state prosecutors and judges are increasingly turning to the criminal code," says Hendratmoko. "This is what confronts many journalists, just as in the past, when they write about certain topics, such as corruption."

An initiative by the AJI for greater enforcement of the media law in cases brought against journalists has, however, been met with deaf ears in the country's Justice Ministry. In fact, the government would even like to revise the press law in its entirety in order to regain control over the press, fears Hendratmoko. Under the present press law, the government has hardly any possibilities to restrict or influence media activity.

The power of media moguls

One example of how criminal law is now, once again, increasingly being used against journalists is illustrated by a recent case in the central Javan city of Yogyakarta. In mid-December 2007, the editor-in-chief of the "Radar Yogya" newspaper was sentenced to prison for six months for allegedly defaming an influential businessman.

"The man is a powerful entrepreneur and also owns a newspaper publishing house. He has the reputation of being a sort of ‘second king of the city' after the Sultan of Yogyakarta," says Eko Maryadi, Indonesian correspondent of the human rights organization Reporters without Borders. "And because he didn't like what one of our colleagues wrote about him, he took the editor-in-chief to court just like that – and won."

Today, the work of journalists is not only hampered by the non-implementation of the press law, but also increasingly by private businessmen, who have taken up media holdings and control a large segment of the market, thereby also controlling media content. Critical or investigative reporting, such as exposing corruption and nepotism, is often unwelcome.

Investigative journalism unwelcome

Bambang Harymurti, the editor-in-chief of TEMPO magazine, the country's most influential and serious investigative news magazine, experienced these developments first hand.

photo: Arian Fariborz
Bastion of the free press in Indonesia: the editorial offices of TEMPO magazine on the outskirts of town

​​In December 2003, he and two of his colleagues were brought before the court after TEMPO critically reported on the dubious business practices of the businessman and media czar Tommy Winata in connection with the fire of a textile market in Jakarta. In this case as well, the accused were convicted of defamation in accordance with paragraphs 310 and 311 of the criminal code and sentenced to prison. The sentence, however, was never carried out.

Despite such intimidation, TEMPO continues to publish critical articles against corruption and nepotism. "At the moment, we are facing yet another lawsuit by one of Indonesia's richest businessmen," says Bambang Harymurti. "In this case, it is about a story we published on massive tax evasion."

The never-ending legal ordeal from lawsuits filed by private business interests has since become almost synonymous with the renowned news magazine. Yet, Harymurti is quite concerned about the present developments within the Indonesian media sector as a whole.

"I fear that fewer and fewer media outlets will be able to afford to conduct real investigative journalism – first, because of the high professional risk and, second, because the electronic media is increasingly falling into the hands of just a few businessmen. Their main concern is to exploit the media to promote their own interests."

Arian Fariborz

© 2008

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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