Indonesia Squeezes Freedom of Expression

Former Constitutional Court Chief Justice Mohammad Mahfud MD in a conference Saturday hailed Indonesia's free press, noting its importance in holding the judiciary and the government to account. "From legislative, government, and judiciary, only the press is successful. You can say that the press excessively opens up [a case] as wide as possible. The press is able to overcome oligarchy," said the popular legal expert and potential presidential candidate.

Indeed, the restoration of press freedom by then-president BJ Habibie following the 1998 ouster of President Suharto was probably the single biggest reform the nation has experienced. Newspapers, TV stations and Web portals have proliferated and the accompanying boom in social media means that politicians are quick to have their every foible dissected somewhere.

But it is far from a perfect picture. There are still bad laws on the books, and ownership of the media -- especially large TV news operations – is virtually all controlled by large conglomerates where either commercial or political considerations color coverage.

Aburizal Bakrie's TVOne is a 24-hour news channel with predictably upbeat coverage of the Golkar leader, mining tycoon and presidential aspirant. Metro TV, the biggest Indonesian news channel, is controlled by politician and tycoon Suhrya Paloh of the NasDem Party. Businessman Chairul Tanjung, who is also presumed to harbor presidential aspirations, owns the large TransTV operation, which features both news and entertainment, and the dominant Detik.com news site.

Hary Tanoesoedibjo, a Chinese entrepreneur and political operator, runs the MNC group, which has TV, radio, newspapers and Web sites and calls itself the largest media group in the country. He is currently aligned with the Hanura Party of Suharto-era general Wiranto. The relatively minor Berita Satu Media Group, which owns the influential Jakarta Globe English newspaper, other dailies and a cable news channel, is controlled by the Lippo Group, whose president is the deputy chairman of the Golkar Party. Even the vaunted Kompas newspaper, Indonesia largest, is not immune to political and commercial colorations, insiders say.

In other words, commercial and political pressures are a daily fact of life in most large newsrooms. But so is the constant stream of social media, twitter and other forms of alternative media that keep the powers that be under an often uncomfortable microscope of public scrutiny.

Doubtless conservative religious groups, local thugs and powerful interests can bring pressure to bear to censor entertainment shows from time to time and keep particularly uncomfortable books off the shelf. And while Indonesian journalists may be able to carry out their work with few government threats, the general public is still being nannied by a restrictive government that decides what they should see and hear. Press freedom is more than not being physically threatened and attacked.

Public discourse beyond the public prints remains constrained by government mechanisms that restrict freedom of expression. These restrictions occur in various contexts such as Internet censorship, the banning of books and films and media ownership.

More serious incursions have involved attacks on journalists by members of the public with little legal protection or prosecution. Sun TV cameraman Ridwan Saluman was beaten to death by villagers in 2010 and the three accused were later acquitted.

Banjir Ambarita, a Jakarta Globe stringer in Jayapura, was stabbed and injured by two men on a motorbike in 2011. Metro TV journalist Ariono Lingoto was murdered in suspicious circumstances, but it is unknown if his death was linked to his profession. This year, pregnant Pasar TV journalist Normila Sari Wahyuni was attacked by villagers and subsequently lost her baby.

The Indonesian Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) observed that between December 2011 and December 2012 there were at least 56 cases of violence against journalists, compared to 49 in 2011. AJI is concerned about impunity for police and officials as only seven of those 56 cases were investigated. Police were implicated in 11 cases, government officials in 13 and the military in three.

Reporters without Borders 2013 World Press Freedom Index lists Indonesia 139th in press freedom. Thailand is marginally ahead at 135th, Malaysia 145th, Philippines 147th and Singapore 149th. No Asean state sits below Thailand on the index. Laos and Vietnam ranked with the worst offenders.

"The Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders does not take direct account of the kind of political system but it is clear that democracies provide better protection for the freedom to produce and circulate accurate news and information than countries where human rights are flouted," said Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire.

Television, books and films are licentious fodder when it comes to the defense of public morality; the government's Indonesian Film Censorship Board (LSF- Lembaga Sensor Film) and Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) is quick to blur out cleavage on Channel E and cut out the best scenes from Game of Thrones.

Disproportionate paternalism means children publicly smoke and sell cigarettes, militarization is so glorified that toy guns are realistic enough to shut down an airport and bloody scenes of dead and murdered people on the front pages of newspapers barely illicit a raised eyebrow. Yet adults are shielded from the horror of seeing two males kissing each other on television.

The Asian Legal Resource Centre reported that in 2009 Indonesia banned five politically compromising books on East Timor and Papua. In 2010, Radio Era Baru was shut down and its license not renewed since, after China complained that its Mandarin broadcasts were too critical of human rights abuses in China.

Equally disturbing is a proposed law that would create a "presidential insult ban" that could see those found guilty facing five years in prison or up to Rp300 million (US$31 000) in fines.

Ask atheist Alexander Aan if he thinks freedom of expression is upheld, and he might answer from his prison cell "yes". For fear of being beaten and charged once again.

Aan's atheist sentiments on Facebook earned him jail time for "inciting religious hatred," in a worrying development whereby online content may be punished.

Previously Aan was indicted for blasphemy and "persuading others to embrace atheism," although the court dropped those charges in favor of the more serious charge. Indeed, the language of "religious hatred" is more internationally accepted in human rights rhetoric as it implies an aggrieved community and projects the legal focus onto Aan's "victims" instead of Aan's personal crimes of conscience. Whereas "blasphemy" and "persuading others to embrace atheism" are clearly charges that violate human rights.

Indonesia has progressed considerably in terms of freedom of political communication. However, Internet and television controls tacitly define morality, radicalizing and delegitimizing "inappropriate" speech and images. Freedom of expression has yet to reach its full democratic potential when the Ministry of Communications blacklists web-based news sites with the same zeal under which it blacklists porn sites.

Blacklisting appears to be a matter of individual action by providers who decide whether or not to comply with the ministry of communications, which says sites containing "pornographic or negative content" must be blocked. As of August 2012 more than 800 000 websites were blocked in Indonesia.

In a heavily politicized environment, even football is the target of political campaigns and messages due to a convergence of interests in media ownership. Indonesia has an extensive and diverse media industry, however some of the most powerful political interests are vested in the media, advertising, and football. Bakrie, for instance, owns a football league in addition to his two television channels. Avid fans numbering in their tens of thousands fill the stadiums every match.

A May 28 Reuters said that the huge audiences football commands, 12 million in the stands per year and 54 million watching each match on television, is also a politician's dream as, "controlling football will provide an edge in the country of 240 million people".

In fact President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Bakrie have wrestled over control of football for the past two years, resulting in two league divisions and perhaps significant damage to the now controversial, politicized sport.

If a thriving free press is partly to thank for freedom of expression in Indonesia, what does that mean if the media is a site of conflict used for vote building?

The state of freedom of expression needs encouraging, but it also needs to be criticized or its shortcomings will be overlooked, particularly as new technologies and social media are also targeted for censorship and control.

(Lauren Gumbs is a human rights student at Curtin University in Perth and holds a masters degree in Communications. She resides in East Java.)