Monday, 4 May 2009

Journalists Still Under Threat From Laws

May 3, 2009 The Jakarta Globe

Camelia Pasandaran

Numerous laws in Indonesia, especially statutes on criminal defamation, leave journalists facing the risk of jail for simply doing their jobs, a legal aid foundation said on Sunday during a commemoration of World Press Freedom Day.

“There are several laws that can endanger journalists,” said Hendrayana, chairman of the Legal Aid Institute for the Press (LBH Pers).

He cited several examples — the Electronic Transaction and Information Law (ITE), the Presidential Election Law, the Public Information Law and various sections of the Criminal Code.

“Now the House of Representative is deliberating a new law on state secrets,” he said. “With all of these laws, journalists are not only under threat for revealing the truth, they will also find it more difficult to access government information that should be open to the public.”

According to Hendrayana, the Law on State Secrets could be used by a political group or individuals to abuse their power.

The annual celebration was a sobering reminder that despite the impressive gains the country has made on press freedom since the reform era began in 1998, threats to the press remain, activists said.

Since May last year, LBH Pers has handled 26 lawsuits. Nine were criminal charges that carried possible prison terms.

Sholeh Ali, litigation director for LBH Pers, said the media won in most cases. He cited the recent verdict issued by the Supreme Court that overturned an earlier criminal defamation conviction against Time magazine.

However, laws that can be used to charge journalists can create a climate of self-censorship, he said, in which journalists fail to write stories for fear of being hauled into court, especially on issues of corruption, illegal logging, human rights violations and misuse of the state budget.

“Instead of referring to the Press Law, police are accustomed to using the Criminal Code,” Ali said.

“In most cases involving the media, police used Criminal Code articles 310 and 311 on defamation. Sometimes they also use the ITE for defamation via electronic media. It carries a penalty of imprisonment of up to six years or a fine of Rp 1 billion [$94,000].”

Ali said police should not directly accept cases against the media. “Firstly, police should send the plaintiff to the Press Council for mediation,” he said. “But if the mediation fails, the police should use the Press Law instead of referring to other laws.”

There are currently several media cases in court.

In addition to legal threats, journalists may also face physical and other forms of intimidation.

According to data gathered by LBH Pers, in the past year, there have been 25 cases of physical abuse and 27 cases of intimidation directed against journalists.