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CAPSULE REPORT: 2008 not a bright year for press freedom, says AJI

(AJI/IFEX) - The year 2008 was not a bright year for press freedom in Indonesia. Ten years after reform was introduced, press freedom in the country was again threatened by various new acts of legislation. During 2008, a series of new laws relating to the press was passed by the government, including Law No. 10 Year 2008 on General Elections, Law No. 11 Year 2008 on Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE), Law No. 14 Year 2008 on Freedom to Access Public Information (KMIP) and Law No. 44 Year 2008 on Pornography.

The Law on General Elections is related to the press because it contains regulations on the publication of news. Article 99 of the Law No. 10 Year 2008 on General Elections returns the existence of a censorship body that can crack down on the press by sanctions such as temporarily halting a broadcasting programme, reducing the duration and time of news publication, imposing a fine, freezing a programme, and revoking the broadcasting and publication licenses of mass media. Various forms of media control, including closure, are norms that violate the principles of press freedom.

The introduction of Law No. 11 Year 2008 on ITE was a positive move in regulating electronic transactions. The law also becomes a legal umbrella for Indonesian electronic transactions. The ITE Law, however, has raised concerns among journalists because it carries a six-year jail term for those who commit defamation via the Internet. The legal threat is not in line with the international trend towards removing defamation offences from criminal law. Rather than eliminating criminal defamation, under the ITE Law a sentence could be imposed that is six times higher than that stipulated by the Criminal Code for a similar offence.

The introduction of Law No. 14 Year 2008 brought a breath of fresh air for democracy. The law provides legal guarantees for citizens to access public information, which was earlier always regarded as a state secret. This law, however, still contains weaknesses that need to be taken into account. It includes a one year jail term for anyone who uses public information which is exempted in the law as stipulated in article 51. A threat against information users is not appropriate and should only be directed to those who leak the information.

The controversial Law No. 44 Year 2008 on Pornography also contains potential threats for press freedom. The Pornography Law carries heavy jail terms. Criminal sanctions in this law, once again, will become a legal mine field for the press. Journalists can be sent to jail in accordance with this law, while the definition of pornography in the law is very flexible.

The year 2008 was also coloured by judicial tragedies against the press in Indonesia. The lawsuit by P.T. Asian Agri against "Tempo" magazine, the lawsuit by P.T. Riau Andalas Pulp and Papers against "Koran Tempo", criminal charges against freelance columnist Bersihar Lubis in Depok, the lawsuit and report filed by Munarman against "Tempo" magazine and "Koran Tempo", and criminal charges against Upi Asmaradhana in Makassar are examples of this.

The mechanisms of the right to respond and mediation at the Press Council have not been maximally utilized by those who have felt they were harmed by news reports. According to Law No. 40 Year 1999, those who feel they have been harmed by news reports can use their right to respond. If, by using the right to respond they do not receive an adequate resolution, those who feel they have been harmed by press reports can file complaints and enter into mediation via the Press Council. Seeking a settlement in court should be the last resort if the above mechanisms reach a deadlock.

It must be admitted that the Indonesian press is still weak in matters of professionalism and ethics enforcement. Various mistakes made in news reports that were caused by poor attention to accuracy, fact checking and coverage of all sides of a story, etc. still affected the press. Ethics violations, such as receiving "envelopes" and not respecting news sources, still happen frequently. However, such mistakes can be settled through mechanisms regulated by Law No. 40 Year 1999 on the Press.

Even worse, during 2008, violence against journalists still occurred in the country. According to AJI Indonesia, during the year, 60 cases of violence were recorded. The types of violence cover: physical assaults (21 cases), threats (19 cases), expulsion and bans on covering incidents (nine cases), lawsuits (six cases), censorship (three cases), protest (one case) and hostage taking (one case).

The perpetrators of the violations came from various circles. Most of them were: supporters of a candidate during regional elections (20 cases), government apparatuses (11 cases), police officers (11 cases), members of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) (eight cases), judges (three cases), nongovernmental organisation activists (two cases), unidentified persons (four cases) and thugs (one case).

The most dangerous areas for journalists conducting their coverage in 2008 were: Gorontalo (11 cases of violence), Jakarta (nine cases of violence) and Ternate (four cases of violence).

It is really saddening that ten years after the country introduced reform, the index of Indonesian press freedom is going down. According to an annual report by Reporters Without Borders, a journalists' organization that fights for press freedom in the world, the index of Indonesian press freedom this year had declined from the 100th position last year to the 111th this year. So far, the index of press freedom has been trusted by the international public as a standard for democracy in a country.

Looking back to the 2008 record, AJI Indonesia declared that the government and the House of Representatives (DPR) should not produce new legislation that controls press freedom. Press freedom as a public right is protected by the 1945 Constitution, so there should be no law that limits this right. AJI calls on those who feel they are harmed by the press to use the right to respond and file a complaint with the Press Council. Reports to the police and lawsuits in court should? be used as a last resort if the two mechanisms of press-related dispute settlement reach a deadlock. AJI urges the public not to hamper journalists from carrying out their coverage, particularly by using violence to block the publication of news. Violence against the press is not only a criminal act, punishable by jail terms, but it also violates the public's right to access information.

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