The Test of Indonesia's Press Freedom

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.