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Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Indonesia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2005
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Indonesia, February 2005, available at: [accessed 17 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Indonesians made history in 2004 by voting in democratic elections for Parliament in April and the presidency in July and September. But a natural catastrophe of unprecedented scope cast a pall over the archipelago nation in late December, when a tsunami killed at least 115,000 people.

Hardest hit was Aceh Province, where 80 employees of Serambi Indonesia, almost half of the paper's staff, died in the December 26 disaster. Since its founding in the early 1990s, the Indonesian-language newspaper was one of the only sources of information from war-torn Aceh. The government, which had banned foreign journalists from covering the separatist rebellion there, allowed the international media into Aceh to report on the devastation.

The tragedy overshadowed a difficult year for the Indonesian press. Stunning guilty verdicts in a series of civil and criminal defamation trials delivered major setbacks to the media. The most important legal actions stemmed from two articles about influential businessman Tomy Winata that ran in 2003; one in the prestigious newsweekly Tempo, the other in its sister daily, Koran Tempo. Both publications, which are owned by the PT Tempo Inti Media Harian company, are run by well-known editor Bambang Harymurti.

In January, a court convicted the daily Koran Tempo of defamation for a February 2003 report saying that Tomy, as he is commonly known, had applied to open a gambling den in South Sulawesi Province. The Central Jakarta District Court ordered the paper's owners to pay a record-breaking US$1 million in damages to Tomy and to publish apologies for three consecutive days. Koran Tempo appealed the verdict, but the exorbitant damages – which the court ordered be paid in U.S. dollars instead of Indonesian rupiahs – sent a warning to all publications and broadcasters that cover Indonesia's powerful elite.

The next strike against the Tempo group came on March 18, when Tempo was convicted of libel for a controversial March 2003 article titled "Is Tomy in Tanah Abang?" Tomy launched as many as six separate legal actions against Tempo, including two criminal cases, in retaliation for the story, which cited allegations that the businessman stood to profit from a fire at a large textile market. Although the article included a denial from Tomy, the judge ruled that Tempo had not covered both sides of the story. The court ordered the magazine to apologize to Tomy and pay damages of almost US$60,000 in rupiahs. With its legal bills mounting, Tempo contested the ruling, and on September 14, a court dismissed the charges.

But the magazine faced other ominous legal challenges. Three of the magazine's journalists appeared in another Jakarta court to face criminal charges stemming from the same article. The threat of jail loomed for Tempo Chief Editor Harymurti, Editor T. Iskandar Ali, and reporter Ahmad Taufik, a 1995 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award. They were charged with spreading false information and provoking social discord, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, and defamation, which carries a maximum four-year sentence.

With the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, a regional press freedom advocacy group, CPJ helped bring a group of journalists from Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia to attend the September 16 verdict to show international support for the Tempo journalists. Under intense international pressure, the court acquitted Taufik and Iskandar but convicted Harymurti of defamation and sentenced him to one year in prison. Harymurti pledged to fight the ruling before Indonesia's Supreme Court. At year's end, he was free pending appeal.

In the wake of these landmark verdicts, local and international press freedom activists called on government officials to overturn Indonesia's colonial-era insult and criminal defamation laws, and to set a legal limit on the amount of damages allowed in libel settlements.

Despite these setbacks, the Indonesian press played a generally positive role in the 2004 elections by monitoring fraud, educating voters about political candidates, and helping to ensure a peaceful electoral process, according to elections monitors and local journalists. Still, a study by the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU-EOM) found a number of instances of bias in both print and broadcast media in the September 20 runoff between incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri and retired Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The state-run television channel TVRI ran coverage slanted toward Megawati and aired ads against Yudhoyono, also known by his acronym, SBY, during a cooling-off period when such ads were prohibited, the EU-EOM study reported. Yudhoyono won the September poll by a wide margin.

By allowing the state to prosecute several cases of criminal libel during her time in office, Megawati disappointed many in the press, local journalists told CPJ. She demonstrated her intolerance for critics again in the run-up to the first round of presidential elections in July by expelling terrorism expert and longtime Indonesia resident Sidney Jones in June. Megawati was under pressure during the campaign because of her perceived inaction against terrorist threats; Jones, the head of the Jakarta office of the think tank International Crisis Group, highlighted the president's shortcomings by writing a well-respected series of reports on active terrorist groups inside Indonesia.

Local and foreign journalists continued to face daunting obstacles as they tried to cover the ongoing strife in Aceh between the Indonesian military (known by the Indonesian acronym TNI) and rebels with the separatist Free Aceh Movement (known as GAM). Martial law had been in effect in Aceh since military operations were launched there in May 2003.

In April, during the parliamentary elections, restrictions were tightened further. Foreign journalists were required to obtain six different documents and approvals before being allowed to visit the region. Even after martial law was lifted later in the spring, pressure from local commanders on the ground; the logistical challenges of covering an increasingly remote conflict; and growing reader fatigue added to the challenges of getting reliable information out of the region and into the media, according to local journalists.

After months of failed negotiations between TNI officials and GAM rebels, RCTI cameraman Fery Santoro was safely released by the rebels in May after 10 months in captivity. Santoro was kidnapped in July 2003 with RCTI senior reporter Ersa Siregar, their driver, and two Indonesian officers' wives after a massive Indonesian military offensive was launched in May 2003. The journalists' driver escaped in early December 2003, and the two wives were freed in February. Siregar was shot and killed during a gun battle between Indonesian military forces and the rebels on December 29, 2003.

Local journalists and press freedom activists, including the Alliance of Independent Journalists, played an active role in Santoro's release. A group of Indonesian journalists traveled to Aceh to ensure his safe handover, and several reporters even offered themselves as collateral to GAM rebels when the release was threatened. They voluntarily stayed overnight with the rebels and were then released.

While campaigning for office, Yudhoyono appeared to support press freedom. In public statements at the time of the final verdict in the Tempo case, Yudhoyono said that journalists should not be jailed because of their work, according to the English-language daily The Jakarta Post. He also visited the Tempo office before he was elected in a show of support for the embattled publication. Yet soon after his election victory in September, his commitment to free expression came into question. Citing security concerns, the Indonesian government imposed a ban in November on foreign journalists traveling to Aceh and to Papua Province, which also has a militant separatist movement. According to The Washington Post, the international press has also been barred from Maluku and North Maluku provinces, and from the towns of Sampit, Poso, and Palu. The decision was made just days after Yudhoyono won the presidency, the Post reported.

Overall, the press in Indonesia has flourished since the fall of the authoritarian President Suharto six years ago. Still, the tenor and professionalism of the country's print and broadcast media are ongoing subjects of debate within the journalism community and Indonesian society itself.

Graphic photographs in newspapers and lurid television shows featuring violent and sexual content are testing the boundaries of taste in the world's most populous Muslim country. Low salaries for journalists, heated competition in a saturated media market, and a lack of universal standards are blamed for what some observers say is increasingly "indecent" content. The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission instituted an ethics code requiring broadcasters to abide by decency standards, which include airing violent and sexually explicit programming only after 10 p.m. Broadcasters largely ignored its edicts initially, prompting the commission to issue a warning in October that it would revoke the licenses of those that fail to comply in 2005.

2004 Documented Cases – Indonesia

JANUARY 20, 2004
Posted: January 30, 2003

Bambang Harymurti, Koran Tempo
Dedy Kurniawan, Koran Tempo
PT Tempo Intl Media Harian

The South Jakarta District Court ordered Koran Tempo to pay US$1 million in damages to businessman Tomy Winata. The daily newspaper was also ordered to publish apologies for three consecutive days in newspapers and broadcast media, according to international news reports. In an unusual move, the court ordered the damages to be paid in U.S. dollars.

Koran Tempo's lawyers have said they will appeal the verdict.

Tomy (who is referred to by his first name), founder of the Artha Graha Group, sued Koran Tempo Chief Editor Bambang Harymurti, reporter Dedy Kumiawan, and the PT Tempo Inti Media Harian company, which published Koran Tempo, for defamation after the newspaper published a report in February 2003 saying that Tomy had applied to open a gambling den in South Sulawesi Province. Tomy sought US$2.5 million in damages, saying the report harmed his reputation as a businessman, according to the Jakarta Post.

Tomy has filed a number of civil and criminal lawsuits against Koran Tempo and its sister publication, Tempo, for their reporting on his business activities. In March, Tomy filed a criminal defamation suit against Tempo, Harymurti, and reporter Ahmad Taufik over an article that cited allegations that Tomy stood to profit from a February fire that had destroyed the Tanah Abang textile market in the capital, Jakarta, and that he might be responsible for the blaze. The article also included a statement from Tomy denying the allegations. Hearings in the case are ongoing in the Central Jakarta District Court.

JANUARY 23, 2004
Posted: February 3, 2004

Cradow Cascha, freelance

German Freelance journalist Cascha was arrested and held overnight in jail by Indonesian military authorities for entering the war-torn Aceh Province without the proper accreditation for a foreign journalist, according to international news reports.

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Asep Sapari told local reporters that Cascha was arrested in the afternoon while riding a public bus in the southwestern Gayo Luwes District. According to Deutsche Press-Agentur, Cascha entered Aceh with a tourist visa he had received from Malaysia for travel to North Sumatra, a neighboring Indonesian province. Cascha was jailed overnight and ordered to return to Medan, North Sumatra's capital, on January 24.

After the Indonesian government declared martial law in Aceh on May 19, 2003, the military launched a large-scale offensive against the separatist Free Aceh Movement rebels, known by their Indonesian acronym GAM, and began limiting journalists' access to the region.

Foreign journalists are required to apply for Foreign Ministry accreditation to visit Aceh, but the process is so lengthy and bureaucratic that few outside reporters have succeeded in traveling there. Local journalists are also forced to operate under pressure and restrictions from the local martial law administration.

MARCH 2004
Posted: April 14, 2004

Foreign Media

In the run-up to national parliamentary elections in April, Indonesian authorities increased already stringent restrictions on foreign journalists trying to visit the war-torn Aceh Province, effectively banning them from the province. The military launched a high-profile offensive against separatist rebels (known by the Indonesian acronym GAM) in Aceh in May 2003.

According to the Foreign Correspondents Club in the capital, Jakarta, (JFCC) Indonesia's Foreign Ministry confirmed in March that foreign journalists hoping to travel to Aceh are now required to provide six documents before receiving official permission to go to the area: a passport; a press card from the Foreign Ministry; a work permit for foreign workers known as a "KITAS"; a letter of recommendation from the Foreign Ministry; an approval letter from the General Elections Commission (known as the KPU); and a letter from military intelligence agents in Aceh approving the proposed visit.

The JFCC added that upon arrival in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh Province, foreign journalists are now required to obtain further documents from local police and military commanders before beginning work. According to the JFCC, foreign journalists also need a sponsorship letter from an Indonesian citizen, a schedule of the places they plan to visit, and a signed agreement not to report anything that could harm military operations in Aceh.

In an interview with a local journalist, Col. Ditya Soedarsono, a spokesman for the Aceh military command, said that foreign journalists are also required to obtain a security permit from the National Police Headquarters in Jakarta before traveling to Aceh. Soedarsono did not mention the KITAS or the recommendation letter from the Foreign Ministry, the journalist said.

Journalists have been required to obtain permits before traveling to Aceh since President Megawati Sukarnoputri signed presidential decree 43/2003 in June 2003, which tightly restricts foreign journalists' and nongovernmental workers' access to the region.

A week after the June 2003 decree was issued, the martial law authority in Aceh announced further restrictions on the media. All foreign journalists and locals working for foreign media were restricted to Aceh's main towns. Journalists approved to work in Aceh were also required to inform military commanders of their movements in every place from which they reported. Journalists who refused to do so faced not only prosecution and being banned from reporting in Aceh but also removal from the region within 24 hours.

Military spokesmen have said that the regulations are intended to protect journalists. But they have limited journalists' ability to report on the war firsthand, forcing them to rely on military-issued statements, some of which have, in the past, contradicted local Aceh residents' accounts of events. Journalists are also required to sign an affidavit saying that they are liable for their own safety. The presidential decree also barred all foreigners from communicating with GAM members.

According to the JFCC, the Foreign Ministry said that since permits were introduced, it had issued nearly 200 letters of recommendation to journalists seeking to go to Aceh. However, by March 2004, only 20 journalists had actually managed to travel there.

APRIL 22, 2004
Posted: April 30, 2004

Sinar Indonesia Baru

A mob of about 15 people attacked the offices of the private daily Sinar Indonesia Baru (SIB) newspaper in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra Province. The assailants, some of whom were armed, threatened and violently assaulted several newspaper employees and destroyed some of the newspaper's equipment.

The attack came in reprisal for recent articles published in the newspaper that investigated the existence of illegal gambling rings in the city, according to local sources and news reports. Some of the reports had suggested that local law enforcement officials were reluctant to crack down on the rings.

Local media organizations, including the Medan branch of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, condemned the attack and called for a police investigation.

The day after the attack, a large crowd of workers associated with gambling operations demonstrated in front of the SIB offices and threatened to mobilize more people to attack the newspaper if journalists continued running stories on gambling, according to the national, English-language daily Jakarta Post.

On April 26, police announced that they had arrested three people suspected of carrying out the attack and were searching for the mastermind, an alleged gambling operator. The head of the Medan police's gambling unit told reporters that the three had confessed to attacking the newspaper's office, breaking its windows and office equipment, and beating employees, the Jakarta Post reported.

According to local sources, gambling is officially outlawed in Indonesia but is often tolerated by local officials.

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