Outrage at conviction of journalist in Java

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2008, 12:00am

The Indonesian media is up in arms after a journalist was sentenced to prison for repeating a 27-year-old quotation describing government prosecutors as 'slow-witted'.

Eddy Suprapto, broadcasting co-ordinator at the Alliance of Independent Journalists, said the one-month suspended prison term handed down to Bersihar Lubis last month was an indication that the country was going back to the dark days of censorship.

'The government is worried about the dynamics of the media, and it is not ready to carry out reform. But we are telling the government it cannot return to the past,' Suprapto said.

Columnist Bersihar wrote a column in the Koran Tempo daily in March last year in which he criticised a government decision to burn certain school textbooks. To illustrate a point, he borrowed a turn of phrase from Suharto-era publisher Joesoef Isak, who, in 1981, described prosecutors who had interrogated him as 'slow witted'.

Even though Bersihar's column singled out no prosecutors and did not even target them as a group, he was convicted of defamation in a criminal case brought by a Javanese district administration.

Suprapto said that in provincial Indonesia, press freedom was in worse peril than in the main cities.

'In small towns, many people don't understand what democracy is and don't know its rules, including the value of freedom of expression,' he said.

Ignatius Haryanto, executive director at the Institute for Press and Development Studies, said Bersihar should not even have been brought in for questioning.

'He did not insult anyone and he was quoting from an old interview. I think the court wanted to show solidarity with the prosecutors,' he said. The original 1981 comment by Joesoef landed the publisher in so much hot water a ban was placed on the works of his star writer, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

Although Indonesia has a Press Law to deal with defamation in the media, Bersihar was judged according to Article 207 of the Criminal Code, which dates back to the Dutch colonial era and covers insults against leaders or legal bodies.

The journalist has filed for a judicial review, saying Article 207 runs contrary to the constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression.

In a December 2006 ruling, the Constitutional Court struck down articles of the Criminal Code that ruled that burning pictures of the president and vice-president and mocking them in public were criminal insults.

In a speech marking National Press Day on February 9, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said government control over the press was over.