New Worries for Indonesia’s Free Press

Goenawan Mohamad
Goenawan Mohamad, World Press Review's 1999 International Editor of the Year, is facing legal troubles for taking on controversial businessman Tomy Winata (AFP Photo).

It’s not the cool tile floors, the open courtyard, or the rendering of Picasso’s “Guernica” hanging on the wall by the front door. Instead, Goenawan Mohamad, 1999 recipient of World Press Review’s International Editor of the Year award, says he will best remember his home for its “historic” value as the place where he helped face down President Suharto. The year was 1994, and the authoritarian New Order regime had shuttered Goenawan’s Tempo magazine—then, as now, revered as one of Indonesia’s most respected political publications—23 years after Goenawan co-founded it.

There were two options, according to Suharto’s minions: Tempo could accept a government-appointed senior editor, or cease publishing altogether. After a long meeting at his home, Goenawan and his colleagues determined there was only one possible reply. Four years later, Suharto fell amid chaos and looting throughout Indonesia, and the English-language Tempo was allowed to publish, and flourish, yet again, as part of a renaissance of free expression.

In a part of Asia not renowned for its democratic treatment of the press, Indonesia’s news outlets are frequently described as “free-wheeling,” particularly when compared to those in Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.

This may not last for long. These days, Goenawan—now a columnist for the magazine—and his fellow journalists at Tempo, its daily version Koran Tempo, and the unaffiliated tabloid Rakyat Merdeka, are facing further battles in the name of press freedom in Indonesia. And while government restrictions are not as suffocating as they were during the 32-year-long Suharto reign, similar challenges linger for Indonesian editors and journalists as they bump up against a corrupt, bureaucratic judiciary and the concentrated power of a narrow, moneyed elite.

Editor’s House Seized
Goenawan’s villa is a comfortable affair in East Jakarta. His home office is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Judging from his library, Goenawan has a special interest in Galileo, Ghandi, and East Timor. In a spacious living room downstairs, Goenawan crosses his legs and sighs.

“This is unprecedented,” declares the bearded, bespectacled Goenawan, who would look equally comfortable conducting university seminars as he would in a bustling newsroom.

Only lately he’s been spending more time in court. On June 5, Tomy Winata, a controversial businessman with powerful friends, sued Tempo for US$22 million following the publication of an article that contained rumors that he was behind a fire that destroyed Indonesia’s largest textile market in downtown Jakarta. Winata also sued Goenawan for slander after Goenawan called him a thug in a speech. At the request of Winata’s lawyers, the East Jakarta District Court issued an asset-preservation order on Koran Tempo’s offices, putting a lien on the facilities pending the outcome of the case because the newspaper published Goenawan’s remarks. Then, on Aug. 29, the same East Jakarta District Court issued a second asset-preservation order on Goenawan’s home.

In Indonesia, it is normal for a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit to ask that the defendant’s property be seized as insurance that the defendant will have the means to pay any damages the court might decide to award. But such actions are normally executed only in financial disputes; Goenawan’s case marks the first time a journalist’s home has been seized in a libel suit.

For Goenawan, much more is at stake than his two-story house. “They are playing a dangerous game,” he says, shifting in his chair. “In the case of my house, what do they gain? They put the country into a crisis of credibility.”

Tempo’s editor in chief, Bambang Harymurti, recalls the morning of March 8 with great clarity. Around 10 a.m. one of the brief but intense downpours that punctuate so many days in this part of the world had just ended. Shortly after, a crowd of several hundred agitated Winata supporters marched on Tempo’s editorial offices, demanding to be told the sources for Tempo’s story about the textile fire.

The mob threatened to storm the office and destroy it after Tempo staffers refused to reveal their sources. And although the crowd ultimately agreed to go to a nearby police station for arbitration, tensions were still running high. A scuffle broke out at the police station. Harymurti was knocked off his feet in a hail of punches while the police stood by.

Harymurti ruefully remembers that day’s events, while noting a trend toward tighter restrictions on the Indonesian press. During the administrations of Presidents B.J. Habibie and Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, who followed Suharto, “the press enjoyed almost total freedom,” he says. “Now President Megawati [Sukarnoputri] is giving all these signs that she thinks ‘the press is too free—it has gone overboard.’ ”

Through his assistants, Winata declined requests for an interview, but issued a statement saying that his life has been threatened as a result of Tempo’s reporting, which he characterizes as “based on rumor” and “without accurate facts.”

“In my opinion, freedom of the press is a must for Indonesia,” he said. “I do not see this case as a threat to the freedom of the press in Indonesia. In Indonesia, all people have equal rights and obligations. It is...everybody’s right to sue when he or she feels they are hurt by the press on the basis of the law.”

“I hope society can understand that this is the effort of a citizen to defend his rights, which are protected by law. And this effort is a way to maintain the law,” he continued. “I do this according to the law to seek the right of justice, not to be the winner.”

This has not been the only hurdle Tempo staffers have faced recently. Last month, they managed to fend off a civil suit filed by Marimutu Sinivasan, who sought tens of millions of dollars for what he said were articles that defamed his business, Texmaco, one of the biggest textile makers in the world. The court ruled in favor of Tempo, although the plaintiffs promised to appeal.

An Emerging Pattern?
Rakyat Merdeka is a blistering tabloid with a reputation for feisty headlines. They have earned the paper—whose name means “Free People”—a loyal following among working people, students, and politicians alike, with 150,000 copies sold every day.

For the most part, people take the paper’s jibes in stride. One issue, for instance, contained a cartoon of former U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbhard as Donald Duck. The Clinton appointee kept the picture as a souvenir when he left Jakarta.

In a similar vein, the paper published pictures of President George W. Bush carrying a crucifix not long after his pledge to lead a “crusade” against terrorists. The use of the word had religious connotations deeply offensive to many here in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. U.S. Embassy staffers sent a copy back to the U.S. Dept. of State.

But lately, President Megawati and many in her ruling clique felt, Rakyat Merdeka had gone too far. On Oct. 27, Supratman, the 34-year-old executive editor of Rakyat Merdeka who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name, was convicted of insulting the president. The South Jakarta District Court gave Supratman a six-month suspended sentence under articles 134 and 137 of the Criminal Code, which make it illegal to “intentionally insult” the president or vice president. Those found in violation of either article more than once face the possibility of being permanently barred from the profession of journalism. The law used against Supratman has its origins in the Dutch colonial era. It was wielded by Suharto during his period in power, but has long since been repealed in Holland, where it originated.

The charges stem from headlines comparing Megawati to a cannibal and insinuating that her breath smells like gasoline. Supratman maintains that these comments only reflected opinions of people interviewed by the paper.

“We feel it’s a setback,” he told World Press Review. “It’s almost like the Suharto era. We feel the same now. She always talks about reform, but we never see any.”

“Megawati’s name will not be bad in public just because of our headlines. It will be because of her leadership and the policies of her government,” he added. “It’s naive to be offended by that kind of headline.”

Ultimately, he was given a six-month suspended prison sentence, having been found guilty only of “humiliating” Megawati. Supratman has pledged to appeal the verdict. 

An Unreported War
Outside Jakarta, the press is under siege as well. On Nov. 26, Human Rights Watch issued a 33-page report expressing concerns about press freedom in Aceh, the former Arab sultanate where counterinsurgency operations are being conducted by the Indonesian military against Islamic separatist rebels.

In the report, which included more than 100 interviews, the New York-based rights group formally recommended a visit by the special rapporteur of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to promote and protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The rapporteur has been invited by the Indonesian government.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch urged the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to free a journalist and cameraman—Ersa Siregar and Ferry Santoro of Jakarta’s RCTI television station—who have been held hostage since June 29, when they ventured into GAM territory for a scheduled interview.

“Both Indonesian security forces and members of GAM have engaged in physical and verbal intimidation of correspondents in the field and editors in Jakarta,” the report found. “The Indonesian government and military have effectively barred nearly all independent and impartial observers (including diplomats), as well as international humanitarian aid workers, from the province.” Further, “What little is known about conditions in Aceh is disturbing,” the report continued.

Defending the news blackout, a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Ahmad Yani Basuki, recently told journalists that the army “regulates the journalists—but that is for their safety.”

A spokesman for GAM, Bakhtiar Abdullah, responding to the Human Rights Watch report, told reporters that his troops don’t intimidate journalists, but they do reserve the right to question anyone entering their territory. GAM has said it would release Ersa and Ferry once it obtained a guarantee of safety, such as a cease-fire. For the moment, Jakarta has ruled out any possibility of a truce.

The report concluded that press restrictions have made Aceh “largely invisible, helping Indonesia to achieve its goal of decreasing the interest of the international and Indonesian media and thereby reducing the potential for pressure to cease its military operations.”

Back in Jakarta, Goenawan says he would like to see Indonesian journalists share their experiences with reporters and editorial staff from papers in other, older, more established democracies like India, Japan, and the United States. “It’s important to know the process of discovery for anyone to be accused of defamation,” he said. “We could learn from countries with more established journalistic traditions. Not everything should be settled by the courts.”

Goenawan’s wife Widarti would likely agree. As she led me from the house, she couldn’t help but point out that termites had caused part of the roof to cave in, allowing rainwater into the building.

“I think the house is angry because of this situation,” she said.