Indonesian Media and Freedom of Expression

Continuing the bi-national dialogue from a similar conference held in Washington, cheap DC on September 8, 2005, USINDO’s program in Jakarta featured the following speakers:

Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, Founder and Lecturer, Dr. Soetomo Press Institute

Dr. Janet Steele, Associate Professor of Journalism, George Washington University, Washington, DC

Dr. Nono Anwar Makarim, Founder and Chairman, Aksara Foundation and Legal Scholar

Alphonse F. La Porta, President, USINDO (Moderator)

Ambassador La Porta introduced the discussion with a brief recapitulation of views expressed at the September 8 conference in Washington, but observed that there are new complications relating to freedom of expression and the media in terms of the recently-announced Indonesian Government restrictions militating against foreign broadcasting, regulating the content of local radio station broadcasting, usurping of the authority of the Independent Broadcasting Commission, and regulation of the broadcasting industry by the Ministry of Communications and Informatics (CommInfo).  Possible motives for these decrees, according to Indonesian observers, include the consolidation of bureaucratic authority, licensing and revenue potential from the old Information Ministry into CommInfo, commercial advantage to keep out foreign participation and ownership in the broadcast media, sensitivity over the “foreign” content of news broadcasts, and appeasement of local religious interests in placing controls on the entertainment industry.  Furthermore, La Porta stated, there is continuing concern about pending court cases concerning journalistic and free speech infringements, self-regulation of the media, and ethical standards.

Atmakusumah Astraatmadja stressed three aspects of current concerns about freedom of expression: the resolution of cases involving the alleged slander of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the lack of consensus on the extent of media freedoms, and the ability of the media to withstand threats not only from government bureaucrats but also from the people.  On the last point, Pak Atma cited a number of incidents provoked by grassroots Islamic organizations against alleged media inaccuracy and excesses, as well as blaming the press for reporting on local conditions and malfeasance, such as a public protest against the Radar newspaper and Police harassment of Sinar Indonesia Baru in Medan.  He explained that the extent of press freedoms under the new press law is not well defined or understood, and still on the books are 35 legal provisions limiting freedom of expression.  Recently it has been proposed to add 49 more articles to legislation limiting the media that includes increased jail terms.  His strong conclusion was that freedom of expression should not be criminalized under a democratic form of government.

Nono Anwar Makarim postulated that the situation regarding freedom of speech is the same as two years ago, citing the long-standing legal cases against Tempo magazine and others.  An international conference on defamation and libel law held in Indonesia 18 months ago has had little impact on the legal environment; if anything, the situation is worse because of the newly-proclaimed decrees directed against the broadcasting industry.  He also cited incidents of intimidation against the Liberal Islam Network as having a chilling effect on free speech and he criticized the lack of Police and other enforcement against such acts.  The Indonesian people, he claimed, are comfortable in the status quo,” akin to the tolerance of petty shoplifting; nothing has been done about the Tempo and other cases, so the government has felt free to add new regulations.

He continued that the consequences of criminalizing free speech are penalties (“go to jail”), perpetration of an atmosphere in which the truth is not relevant, and one in which the act of publication or broadcast is itself proof of harmful intent.  Dr. Makarim cited trends in other countries, such as the Netherlands, Japan and South Korea, to decriminalize media infractions: jail sentences are out of fashion, there is balance with the desire to protect freedom of opinion, EU human rights courts have ruled that the intent to defame must be extreme and clearly evident, and in South Korea the courts have gone further to rule that if the alleged defamer believed he/she was truthful, then that person cannot be blamed.  In today’s conditions, he concluded, the broadcasting industry and press moguls should lobby the Supreme Court and government against further infringements.

Janet Steele explained that her current experience in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region has led to an understanding of her own culture through the eyes of others.  In East Timor, for example, it was taken for granted that the government should establish guidelines for professionalism in journalism.  On the contrary, she pointed out, in a democracy a government doesn’t enforce the rules of good journalism; rather, reporters and editors regulate themselves by applying professional ethics and values.  Furthermore, in a democracy the press exists to serve the public and to provide citizens with information, not as part of the government, but as part of the public.  Professor Steele then drew three lessons from the New Order experience of press control:

1)      There will be true freedom of expression when journalists organize themselves.

2)      Journalists have to support one another and dedicate themselves to serving the public; in this respect there is a shared interest vs. competitiveness, there should be a greater public commitment to freedom of expression, and journalists should become involved on the popular level and in schools.

3)      Governments have to learn to accept criticism and that political give-and-take is normal in a democracy.

“Not all truth is comfortable,” she concluded.  “In the dance between the government, the press and the public there will always be moments of disagreement.  Differences of opinion are natural in a democracy, and must be reported upon openly and honestly.”

The ensuing discussion brought out the following points:

  • One questioner complained about inaccurate reporting by Tempo of an alleged book-burning incident in Bandung in 2000.  What is the function of the Press Council in remedying such inaccuracies, he asked.  Dr. Makarim commented that, whatever the reason, book-burnings are symptomatic of a dictatorship.  Another observation was that there are different styles of journalism and that a pluralistic media is needed to serve the differing needs of the readerships.
  • Asked whether journalistic use of the Internet is encompassed under the press law, the response was that professional standards of editing and verification apply to web sites and postings by newspapers and broadcast media, but this would not be the case of blogs, SMS messages and other individual, private uses.
  • In applying journalistic standards, the Press Council should assess freedom of expression on a comparative basis with practices in other countries and accepted international human rights standards.
  • It is necessary to expand learning processes about freedom of expression to explain fundamental freedoms, promote ethical practices, and train people in the media.
  • There was broad agreement among audience participants that the new broadcasting regulations, the implementation of which has been put “on hold” for two months, are unwise and harmful to basic freedoms of expression and dissemination of information in the press and broadcast media.