Opinion

Indonesia’s press is
dangerously free

“Travel warning: Indonesia dangerously beautiful” reads a tagline on a sticker on the front window of a little, off-the-beaten track travel agency in Depok.

The wording seems analogous to the state of the nation’s press freedom. Press warning: Indonesia dangerously free.

World Press Freedom Day on May 3 underscored the stark reality of the danger facing journalists, even in countries where press freedom is legally recognized.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders counted 67 journalists who were killed in 2011 and 22 more murders in 2012. Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists, headquartered in New York, said 179 journalists were detained in 2011, up 20 percent from 2010.

“Countless others face intimidation, harassment and censorship at the hands of governments, corporations and powerful individuals seeking to preserve their power or hide wrongdoings and misdeeds,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared in observing World Press Freedom Day.

By law, Indonesia has press freedom. Article 4 of the 1999 Press Act states: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed as a basic right of the citizens … Toward the national press, there shall be no censorship, banning or broadcasting prohibition.” The reality, however, shows press freedom has a price.

The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Legal Aid Center for the Press (LBH Pers) cite eight Indonesian journalists murdered between 1996 and 2010. AJI has demanded the authorities to solve these cases.

They include the murder of Fuad Muhammad Syarifuddin (Udin) of the daily Bernas in Yogyakarta. Unknown assailants clubbed him on Aug. 13, 1996 after he reported on the alleged passing of Rp 1 billion (US$ 108,000) in bribes from the then district chief of Bantul, who was seeking another term in office. Udin died three days later.

In 2010, chief editor of the Pelangi weekly tabloid on Kisar Island in Maluku, Alfrets Mirulewan, died following a savage beating. Alfrets was investigating illegal fuel trading that fetches huge profit margins in remote areas.

His body was found on a beach on Dec. 17, three days after he was reported missing. An autopsy revealed he died as the result of acts of violence. More recently, in March 2012 alone, journalists in four separate incidents were assaulted by the police as they were covering public protests against fuel price hikes. On March 26, two journalists in North Sumatra were beaten.

A day later, a reporter from the Lampu Hijau daily in Jakarta was beaten for taking pictures of the police chasing and striking students. On March 28, an officer of the police’s Mobile Brigade (Brimob) intimidated and confiscated the video cassette of a TV One reporter in front of the State Palace. On March 28, police beat a Global TV journalist reporting on a similar demonstration in Jakarta.

Indonesian journalists have legal protection when they do their work. Article 18 of the Press Act provides a prison sentence of up to two years or a maximum fine of Rp 500 million for anyone who impedes journalists seeking and disseminating information. In a Kafkaesque twist, however, apparently it is the perpetrators and not the victims who get the protection.

Press Council member and chair of its interagency relations unit, Bekti Nugroho, has called on the police to uphold the law, particularly in cases of violence against journalists.

Law enforcement is important as it deters the perpetrators of violence against journalists, Bekti was quoted as saying by Kompas. Bekti pointed to the Memorandum of Understanding between the Press Council and the National Police signed Feb. 9, 2011. Under the MoU, the police should pursue cases involving news reporting by applying the Press Act from the outset, he said.

The MoU between the Press Council and the National Police on Coordination in Law Enforcement and Press Freedom Protection serves as a litmus test as to how far the Press Act is upheld.

Essentially, the MoU calls on the police to consult with the Press Council when the former receives a press-related complaint.

Undoubtedly, this would not rule out complaints from the press itself on police intimidation. If a complaint concerns a criminal offence, the police will deliberate using the Press Act before the penal code.

Consequently, to reduce assaults on journalists, police officers should get a thorough briefing on the MoU and the possible consequences of noncompliance with Article 18 of the Press Act.

Whether the law is observed or not, people who want to pursue journalism as a career must accept the reality that it can be a 3D job: dangerous, difficult and demanding. Idealists in journalism, however, would not be intimidated by such a warning. They would possess and adhere to the opposite 3D qualities: deliberate, dogged and have a deliverable attitude.

The writer teaches journalism at the Dr. Soetomo Press Institute (LPDS), Jakarta.

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