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CAPSULE REPORT: Violence against journalists, prosecution of media on the rise in 2007, says AJI

(AJI/IFEX) - The following is a 28 December 2007 AJI statement:

Rising violence against journalists

AJI ended 2007 deeply concerned with the rising violence against journalists and with the trend of increasing prosecution of journalists by government and the community.

On the one hand, AJI found it heartening that the public has become more aware of their right to information. Criticisms of mistakes made in news reports were found alongside public demands for a professional press that prioritises journalistic ethics. The public was able to distinguish between a professional, ethical press and a haphazard, unethical one; hence, media and journalist organisations are under pressure to improve professionally, which includes ensuring adequate attention to staff welfare.

On the other hand, the excessively critical stance of the public and of government when it came to the press was potentially harmful to press freedom and the public right to information, both of which are provided for by the Constitution. Threats against the press came not only in the form of the closure of companies or censorship of news, similar to that experienced during the Soeharto era, but also in the form of the prosecution and jailing of media workers. If such threats are to continue, journalists will be unable to carry out their duties as mandated by the 1999 Law No. 40 on the Press.

AJI also noted the approach of "attacking the messenger" while diverting attention from the message in the case of "Tempo" magazine journalist Metta Dharmasaputra, whose integrity was attacked by police after he exposed PT Asian Agri's manipulation of taxes. As well as violating the Telecommunication Law, the dissemination of print-outs of the journalist's private text messages was intended to embarrass him. Unfortunately, police, who were the first party to request copies of text messages to PT Telkom, did nothing about this illegal violation.

From January to December 2007, AJI recorded 75 cases of violence against the press across Indonesia, an increase from the previous year's 53. The most dangerous province/city for journalists was Jakarta (17 cases), followed by East Java (14 cases), West Java (10 cases), and the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra (eight cases each). In 2006, 16 cases of violence were recorded in Jakarta, seven in East Java and six in West Java.

As for prosecution of the press, AJI slammed the attitude of law enforcers such as the police and prosecutors who investigated press-related cases without referring to the Press Council.

AJI also regretted the inclination of law enforcers to use either the Criminal Code or the Civil Code to handle disputes related to press reports, disregarding the Press Law which mandates that any objection to news reports shall be delivered through the mechanisms of the right to respond, the right to make corrections, mediation by the Press Council and the "court of ethics" formed by journalist organisations, before taking it to the courts.

The year saw a number of court cases against the press which attracted the attention of the public and the international community. They included the trials of: "Koran Tempo" columnist Bersihar Lubis, who is awaiting the decision of the Depok District Court in West Java; "Investigasi Tabloid" chief editor Eddy Sumarsono at the South Jakarta District Court; and the imprisonment of "Radar Jogja" former general manager Risang Bima Wijaya and Medan-based "Oposisi Tabloid" chief editor Dahri Uhum Nasution.

Generally, the charges in the cases above related to "defamation" and "a crime against dignity", which should no longer be used because the legislation was inherited from the Dutch colonialists. A victim of the Civil Code's defamation law was "Time" magazine, which was sued by former president Soeharto. The judicial panel of the Supreme Court ruled that "Time" had to pay a fine of one trillion rupiah (approx. US$104 million), a huge amount of money that would have bankrupted a local press outlet. Imposing on the press a fine of such an irrational sum is no different from killing the press.

Internationally, Indonesia is categorized as a "fully democratic" country for successfully holding direct, safe and transparent general elections. This picture of "success", however, was not reflected in its press freedom climate in 2007, which still put Indonesia as a "half democratic" country, with a poor press freedom index dragged down by the many cases of violence and prosecution against the press (source: Freedom House 2007 and Reporters Sans Frontieres 2007).

As a member of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) based in Brussels, Belgium, and a founder of the Bangkok-based SEAPA, AJI endeavors to improve the climate of press freedom and ensure that the public right to information is fulfilled in accordance with the reform mandate and the Constitution.

AJI, therefore:
- condemns the violence committed against the press and rejects every effort to prosecute against the freedom to carry out journalistic duties and the freedom to express opinions in writing and speech, and urges all government apparatuses and the public to better understand journalistic duties and the profession, the freedoms of which have been guaranteed by the law;

- demands that the Indonesian government - in particular, the police chief, the attorney general and the Supreme Court chair - use their authority to investigate various acts of violence against press workers and to halt efforts to prosecute journalists and the press, as concrete measures to maintain true democracy and to implement the mandate of the Constitution on the public's right to information; and

- calls on all members of the press community, including companies, organizations and journalists, to improve the standards and ethics of the profession, and to give due attention to the welfare of press workers. A professional press that adheres to the journalistic code of ethics will garner public support, which will enable journalists to carry out their duties more freely.

AJI also invites all members of the press to fight against all forms of terror and threat that can harm press freedom.

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