Subject: JP Editorial: A Win for Press Freedom

The Jakarta Post Tuesday, September 26, 2006


A Win for Press Freedom

A trial last week at the South Jakarta District Court passed largely unnoticed, although the court's decision indicated a seismic shift in the Indonesian judiciary.

To understand this shift we need only to hear what the presiding judge said in delivering the court's decision in the trial of a journalist charged with religious blasphemy for reprinting the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that first appeared in Denmark.

"What the defendant did was not based on disrespect. The pictures only appeared as background to the news," Judge Wahyono said last Wednesday.

Teguh Santosa, chief editor of the online version of Rakyat Merdeka newspaper, was indicted late August for "publicly expressing or inciting animosity and defamation toward Islam".

Santosa posted the Prophet Muhammad cartoons on the website of the paper, known for its sensational headlines, in February.

Judge Wahyono, who led the panel of three judges hearing the case, declared the indictment unacceptable. The charge leveled against the defendant, he said, was not appropriate.

He said prosecutors, if they wished to indict Santosa, should have charged him with "publicly broadcasting, showing or displaying writing or pictures that contain enmity, hatred or insults towards groups in Indonesia".

That charge carries a maximum penalty of 30 months in jail, compared to the five years for the original indictment.

It was a bold, maybe even revolutionary, decision by the court. But the real bombshell was the court's agreeing to try the journalist under the Press Law, as opposed to under the Criminal Code.

Santosa's legal ordeal may not yet be over, as prosecutors may appeal the decision or file new charges, but it appears his defense is on the right track.

This trial was different from past ones when journalists were often subjected to the Criminal Code, which allows for the jailing of journalists for defamation. This despite the existence of the 1999 Press Law, a groundbreaking law enacted during the Habibie administration.

One of the more publicized recent cases involved Tempo magazine, which was charged with publishing false information and libeling a well-connected businessman in 2004. Both the Central Jakarta District Court and the Jakarta High Court found Tempo guilty, but the verdict was overturned by the Supreme Court in February 2006 on the grounds that the case had been erroneously filed using the Criminal Code instead of the Press Law.

In 2004, Rakyat Merdeka lost separate libel cases involving stories it published about then president Megawati Soekarnoputri and House of Representatives speaker Akbar Tandjung. In both these cases, the Criminal Code was used.

It has been the Supreme Court that has set a good example by recognizing the lex specialis for the press. According to this view, journalists are not treated like common criminals for simply being suspected of making an error while doing their job.

The Supreme Court deserves praise for this. Now this understanding appears to have spread down to the district court level.

It is heartening that judges are making strides in their understanding of the profession of journalism. Their initial confusion over what law to apply against journalists is understandable given the repressive political climate of the recent past.

The press was anything but professional during the three decades of Soeharto's repressive rule until he was forced from office in 1998.

The closed culture of the bureaucracy under Soeharto was well entrenched and is largely unchanged today. This is reflected in the government's efforts to hastily draft a state secrecy bill, while the bill on freedom of access to information seems to have stalled in the House of Representatives.

A change from authoritarianism to democracy cannot be accomplished overnight.

After the Press Law was enacted in 1999, a Press Council was set up. Its role is to mediate disputes between readers and media companies. But funding for the council is a steep exercise. Money from the government, media corporations and the public comes in drips.

Although Santosa's trial is an encouraging sign, press freedom cannot be taken for granted. The flower wreath the judges received from Santosa's supporters was a fitting gift. On it was a message: "Congratulations for upholding press freedom."

The decision by the South Jakarta District Court is a big step toward a free press and democracy. In the heavily tainted world of the Indonesian judiciary, it is consoling to learn that there are judges who are trying to make a change in their own quiet way.

Let us now hope this shift will reverberate in courtrooms throughout the archipelago.

------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service

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