The Test of Indonesia’s Press Freedom

Ominous concerns over whether the police firebombed the offices of Tempo
magazine over a news story

A June 27 story by Indonesia's most respected news magazine, Tempo,
detailing the fat bank accounts of six top national policemen is
starting to appear to be a major test of press freedom in the
country.

In the early hours of July 6, two black-clad men on a
motorcycle were seen by witnesses
throwing three firebombs at the
magazine's editorial offices in central Jakarta, causing relatively minor
damage. Only two of the Molotov cocktails ignited and Wahyu Muryadi,
Tempo's editor-in-chief, said there had been no injuries.

Although
the motorcyclists have not been identified, they are widely presumed in
Jakarta
to be connected to the police officials who were embarrassed
by the Tempo story. A police spokesman, however, denied that the
firebombing was related to the story, or that the police had anything
to do with it.
 
In recent days, rather than investigating the
billions of rupiah the officials reportedly have in their accounts,
the police appear to be more preoccupied with who leaked the details of
the accounts rather than how officials were able to amass such
massive amounts of cash. They have threatened to sue Tempo for the
illustration on the cover of the magazine, which depicted a policeman
being towed along by three leashed piggybanks, and have also threatened
to prosecute whoever leaked the details of the accounts to a reform
organization that passed them on to Tempo. A police official lodged a
protest over the cover with the Indonesian Press Council, although
not over the story itself.

A week earlier, on the same day the
story broke, officials presumed to be connected with the police
rushed around in the early morning hours to try to buy up all the copies
of the offending story from almost all of Tempo's 29 vendors in the
central city. The attempt was futile, since they were only able to
buy up 30,000 copies in central Jakarta, leaving the rest of the country free
to buy them. Subscribers also got their copies through the mail. The
action by the mystery buyers backfired and stirred up even more
publicity, with buyers clamoring for copies and vendors offering the
ones they have left for double the price. Tempo printed 30,000 more and sold
them to replace the ones the mystery buyers had purchased.

The
story printed the names of six officials with as much as US$10.45
million in their accounts. They were Inspector General Mathius
Salempang, Inspector General Sylvanus Yulian Wenas, Inspector General
Budi Gunawan, Inspector General Badrodin Haiti, Commissioner General Susno
Duadji and Inspector General Bambang Suparno. At the very top, police
officials earn only about Rp15 million, or about US$1,600 per month.

The
Tempo article kicked off a storm in Indonesia, not just from the public
but from community leaders and politicians including the opposition
Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, criticizing the
massive amounts of money in the accounts. On Tuesday, President Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono, reacting to public pressure, ordered Gen. Bambang Hendarso
Danuri, the National Police chief, to investigate the Tempo report.
Speaking with reporters prior to a cabinet meeting, Yudhoyono said he
had received hundreds of messages from the public questioning how
police officials could have amassed such wealth.

"Please respond
to this issue, resolve it and manage it well," Yudhoyono told Danuri.
"If there are legal violations, impose sanctions. If you don't,
explain why."

That leaves the question of why the president would
ask the police, who are among the most corrupt of Indonesia's
corrupt institutions, to investigate themselves, rather than asking the feared
Corruption Eradication Commission to take on the case. The commission,
known by its initials KPK, has won convictions on every case it has
brought before its own special court, tossing scores of politicians
and others in jail.

Indeed, Gen. Ito Sumardi, the new chief of
detectives who replaced Susno Duadji, who himself was ousted on
corruption charges and who was named as one of the six, hardly inspired confidence
when he confirmed that the officials named in the report had bulging
bank accounts. But, Sumardi said, that didn't mean a crime had been
committed.

"If [the money] was given voluntarily, then we should
not force them to confess," he told local reporters. The cash, he
said, was identified as from parties identified as either "good friends"
or businessmen with no connection to any case. "So there's no
crime."
However, he said the investigation would continue.

It
isn't the first time Tempo has come under fire from government
officials. Founded in 1971 by Goenawan Mohamad and Yusril Djalinus,
it was later banned by the Information Minister, Harmoko, on orders
from President Suharto as a "threat to national stability." It came back
into existence after the strongman passed from the scene in the wake
of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 and 1998.

Since that
time, Indonesia has developed a lively and independent press. With
Suharto's fall, the new government headed by Suharto's vice
president, B J Habibie, abolished state censorship, established legal
guarantees of freedom of the press and allowed many new media outlets
to receive licenses, according to the annual Freedom House Survey.

There
are continuing problems, however, including a draconian law that has
the potential to put editors and reporters in jail if the courts –
which are hardly corruption-free – rule that they have criminally
libeled their subjects. Now it remains to be seen if intimidation by
firebomb will make a difference.

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