The Jakarta Post
Jim Nolan, a pro bono legal consultant for the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), is in Jakarta to meet with journalism activist groups as part of the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, which fell on May 3. He shared his views on the Indonesian press in a conversation with The Jakarta Post's Safrin La Batu. Following are excerpts from the interview.
Question: What do you think about press freedom in Indonesia today?
Answer: Well, I was surprised. There has been much improvement since the fall of Soeharto [in 1998], and since the introduction of the Press Law. But, since then, there's been a lot of problems with the Defamation Law and the Blasphemy Law, more recently, and the Information and Electronic Transactions [ITE] Law, which effectively extends criminal defamation laws to the Internet.
There are still very significant problems with these laws and the way they are implemented. And of course, more recently, there have been problems with the way security laws are used. Websites have been closed down; ministers should not close sites down without some kind of judicial review.
The law has interfered with publication. ITE and other laws are loose and badly formulated, and they are applied forcibly.
How does the Blasphemy Law threaten the freedom of the press?
The formulation of the Blasphemy and ITE laws is so wide and loose, and they can mean anything. When the ITE Law was first proposed in 2007, the AJI [the Alliance of Independent Journalists] and a whole range of civil society groups all raised this issue. They said, look at the laws. These laws are so wide. They can mean anything. They can be used to press people, while the government says they just regulate electronic commerce. There is nothing to worry about. And the AJI was proved to be correct when Prita Mulyasari's defamation case [Prita was sued by a hospital after she criticized its service] emerged in 2008, and quite recently the case against Tempo magazine for publishing stories in the public interest.
It doesn't really matter if they lose or win the case. In the end Tempo won the case, but it took time in court to defend themselves against criminal charges.
What about last year's reports from Amnesty International and Freedom House that you previously cited?
Last year Amnesty International published a major report on the use of the Blasphemy Law and the repression of religious freedom. Of course, it infringes on the freedom of the press, and it infringes on the freedom of religion.
And so Amnesty has identified a number of serious problems regarding how the Blasphemy Law is applied, and the way the law was formulated and so on. It is a very serious and significant report. Freedom House's report is similar.
Law No.40/1999 on the Press Article 4 stipulates that press freedom is the right of all Indonesians. Is it protective enough or do we still need to work on it?
A lot of work still needs to be done. The problem is that the press law conflicts with other laws. Normally, the implementation on the ground depends on what the police want to do, and depends on the political mood. Often, the Press Law will be pushed aside and criminal law will take priority. It is important that the Press Law be used to protect people's rights. It depends on the law enforcers which law they will use.
The trouble now is that newspapers are under the burden of having to think about the potential of being charged under criminal law for doing something legitimately in the public interest.
What is your suggestion for the Indonesian press regarding the blasphemy law, which is likely to limit their freedom?
They have to be careful and they have to make sure they are acting according to the code of ethics. They have to make sure they are working in the public interest and so on.
I suggest that they should be able to say anything, and if the publication complies with the code of ethics and if it is a legitimate activity, any complaint should go through the Press Council, and if there is a complaint that goes to the police the police can tell them to go to the Press Council.