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Jakarta Post

Human Rights Watch urges police to release journalist charged with defamation in South Kalimantan

  • Ivany Atina Arbi
    Ivany Atina Arbi

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, May 20, 2020   /   09:43 am
Human Rights Watch urges police to release journalist charged with defamation in South Kalimantan Illustration of a handcuffed man. (Shutterstock/BortN66)

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the South Kalimantan Police to drop a defamation charge against a blogger who published articles about a land dispute between the indigenous Dayak ethnic group and a palm oil company owned by businessman Syamsudin Andi Irsyad aka Haji Isam, in the province.

Blogger Diantara Putra Sumedi, who is also the former editor-in-chief of local media platform banjarhits.id, has reportedly been detained since May 4 following the filing of a defamation report by a person named Sukirman, who claims to be a representative of the Dayak people.

According to a statement issued by the HRW, Diantara published an article in November last year on the land dispute, in which Sukirman was quoted as saying that he planned to file a lawsuit against the palm oil company.

Sukirman denied mentioning a plan to file a lawsuit and filed a police report against banjarhits.id and Kumparan, a Jakarta-based media platform that sponsored and provided the platform for Diantara’s articles. 

The Jhonlin Group followed up by filing a report with the police. The company also filed a complaint with the Press Council.

The council issued a statement on Feb. 5 that censured Diantara for publishing unverified stories. It also ordered Kumparan to provide space for the company to respond, as the stories were deemed unethical and racially insensitive for creating tension between the Dayak and Bugis ethnic group, of which the Jhonlin Group’s founder is a descendent of.

Kumparan responded by taking down the stories on Feb. 11 and terminating its collaboration with Banjar Hits. However, Kumparan reported that Jhonlin Group did not use its right to respond.

Read also: South Kalimantan journalist dies while being detained on defamation charges

On May 4, the South Kalimantan Police detained Diantara and charged him for reportedly  committing defamation. If found guilty, Diantara could face a maximum punishment of six years in prison. A police spokesperson said Diantara had been detained over concerns he might publish more stories about the land dispute. 

The human rights organization slammed the police’s decision to detain Diantara, saying criminal charges for alleged defamation were “disproportionate punishment and frequently abused by the police.”

"Threatening a writer with prison time for criminal defamation has a chilling effect on freedom of speech for all journalists," HRW senior researcher Andreas Harsono said in a statement, adding that civil defamation was a more proportionate response to such allegations.

According to the rights group’s analysis, the country's criminal defamation laws contain vague language that allowed "retaliation against journalists and others" who reported allegations of corruption, fraud or misconduct against powerful interests, among other things.

The HRW highlighted other cases in which journalists and human rights defenders covering or defending parties in land disputes had been arrested under various laws, in addition to criminal defamation.

Another South Kalimantan-based reporter, M. Yusuf, was detained in 2018 for allegedly inciting hate speech against a Jhonlin Group subsidiary. He died five weeks later while in police custody.

Yusuf’s wife, Arvaidah, claimed the police had ignored her pleas for medical care for her husband, as Yusuf had stomach and cardiovascular illnesses. Her request for Yusuf’s release on account of his medical condition was also rejected.

“The police and aggrieved companies should stop bringing criminal defamation charges to intimidate, detain or prosecute journalists and other people exercising their freedom of speech,” Andreas said.

He added that such defamation cases should be taken to the Press Council and only be taken to the police if the petitioners were dissatisfied with the council’s decision, as stipulated in a 2017 memorandum of understanding between the council and the force, Andreas went on to say. (vny)