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Date Posted: 03:34:55 01/24/04 Sat
Author: PMW
Subject: Libel judgment shakes Indonesian press

The Washington Post
Thursday, January 22, 2004

Libel Judgment Shakes Indonesian Press

Rise in Lawsuits Seen as Threat to Freedoms Gained Since End of Dictatorship

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Jan. 21 -- An Indonesian court has handed down a record
libel judgment against one of the country's most prominent newspapers,
ordering
Koran Tempo on Tuesday to pay $1 million in damages to an Indonesian
businessman for reporting last year that he had planned to open a casino
despite laws
banning gambling.

The case is one of a series of libel suits by businessmen, politicians and
senior military officers that news media and human rights advocates said were
creating a chilling atmosphere and threatening to roll back some of the gains
made by Indonesia's press after the end of the dictatorship of Suharto in
1998.

With strict censorship lifted, newspapers and magazines have proliferated
over the last six years, while competing television and radio stations now
crowd
the airwaves.

The government still restricts reporting about a few subjects, in particular
the separatist conflict in the western province of Aceh, but investigative
journalism has taken root and the country's institutions, widely criticized
for
corruption, are subjected to a degree of scrutiny once unthinkable.

Over the last year, some of Indonesia's most popular publications have been
staggered by a series of lawsuits, with some legal experts complaining that
the
courts were unduly swayed by the money and political influence of the
high-profile plaintiffs.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri sued the editor of the tabloid Rakyat Merdeka
for criminal defamation under colonial-era laws over insulting headlines,
including two that compared her to a cannibal and a leech. The speaker of the
House of Representatives, who has been convicted of corruption, sued another
Rakyat Merdeka editor after being depicted in a political cartoon as
bare-chested
and dripping with sweat. Both editors were found guilty and given suspended
prison sentences.

Koran Tempo and its affiliated magazine are publications with a much more
distinguished pedigree. The weekly Tempo magazine had stubbornly advocated
democratic freedoms during Suharto's 32-year rule before being banned by the
government in 1994. The magazine returned as part of the reform movement that
followed Suharto's ouster and quickly became one of Indonesia's most respected
publications.

Last March, Tempo published allegations that Tomy Winata, a banking and
property mogul, stood to profit from a fire a month earlier that destroyed a
mammoth textile market in Jakarta, and it suggested he may have been behind
the
incident. Winata filed civil and criminal charges. That case is pending.
Several
Tempo journalists were roughed up after at least 100 Winata supporters
besieged
the magazine's offices following the article's publication.

Soon after, Winata filed another lawsuit, claiming Koran Tempo had separately
libeled him in the article discussing alleged plans for a casino. He argued
that it was part of a campaign by the newspaper and its sister magazine to
ruin
his reputation.

As part of the judgment, the court ordered Koran Tempo to publish apologies
in domestic and international media outlets.

Winata's attorney said Wednesday that his client would be satisfied with the
court ruling this week only if it prompts Koran Tempo to clear his name by
formally apologizing.

"Tomy Winata wants righteousness," said Desmond J. Mahesa, the defense
attorney. "He wants his name to be rehabilitated."

But Bambang Harymurti, Koran Tempo's editor in chief, said the newspaper
stood by the article. Harymurti, who was found guilty along with the
reporter who
wrote the disputed article, said they would not apologize and had no intention
of agreeing to the $1 million judgment, which media experts said is the
largest libel award ever against an Indonesian publication. "We can't pay
it and
even if we could, we wouldn't. It will set a bad precedent. It is the
result of
the misuse of law," he said.

Harymurti said Koran Tempo would appeal the decision, aiming ultimately to
bring the case before the Indonesian Supreme Court. He predicted that the
Supreme Court justices would be more sympathetic to the role of the press in a
democratic society. But even if the newspaper eventually prevails, he said,
the
court case is already having the effect of intimidating other publications.

"This is a stifling environment for journalists," he said.

Moreover, he said, the court had failed to take into account the public
interest served by the media and had ignored a special Indonesian law meant to
regulate the press, instead rendering the verdict under less favorable
terms of
ordinary civil law.

"We have big space for a liberal press but, on the other hand, we face a
consolidation of the old powers that want to control the press like
before," said
Nezar Patria, secretary general of the Alliance of Independent Journalists.
"The media is becoming afraid to publish some articles because they could face
court charges."

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