On lawsuits against press freedom

Warief Djajanto Basorie, Jakarta | Opinion | Tue, February 09 2016


What are unjustifiable lawsuits against press freedom? This is an issue journalists observing National Press Day on Feb. 9 in Lombok, the fast developing go-to island east of Bali, should give thought to and talk through.

Unjustifiable lawsuits against press freedom is a term Herlambang Perdana Wiratraman coined. The law school lecturer at the Surabaya-based University of Airlangga labeled lawsuits as unjustifiable when they are directed to intimidate.

Dr. Herlambang used the label in his highly readable 2014 dissertation Press Freedom, Law and Politics in Indonesia presented at Leiden University. These are lawsuits political and business figures hurl at journalists and media outlets with the intent to harass and hurt as reprisal over conceived abhorrent reporting. 

“They are directed against professional journalism, demand an extreme amount of compensation, are often accompanied by intimidation, and usually serve to promote political-economic elite interests,” Herlambang writes in his 320-page study.

In his research, Herlambang interviewed more than 150 people, mostly journalists but also judges, police, lawyers, press council members and media owners. Nearly every journalist he interviewed considered civil lawsuits against the press a means of “intimidation” rather than a process to sustain accurate reporting.

The researcher lists three reasons why journalists feel such lawsuits are intimidating. One, the extraordinary amount of compensation demanded is oft adequate to a bankrupt a media firm. Two, internal conflict dwelling on blame shifting. Three, the judicial process is time consuming, complicated and costly.

Herlambang cites the 2011 case of Radar Tegal vs Cipta Yasa Multi Usaha Inc. (CYMA) in which CYMA sent a reply to Radar Tegal that was published almost immediately without editing. CYMA complained the Central Java newspaper reported the company did not have a permit.

Nevertheless, two weeks later CYMA filed a lawsuit against Radar Tegal demanding Rp 247.4 billion (US$18.2 million), a sum that would bankrupt the paper. Fortunately, as CYMA did not follow press law procedure, the court dismissed the claim. 

Earlier, in a 2008 case, a businessman, arguing insult over reports that he was arrested for gambling in a luxury hotel, sued seven different Jakarta-based media with separate claims for damages ranging from $3 million to $16 million.

Each of the four Jakarta district courts where the businessman filed his lawsuits refused the claims. One argument was that the news report was based on police sources and the complainant should have addressed the police and not the press. 

Herlambang also goes into detail with regard to celebrated post-Soeharto reform era cases involving news magazines Tempo and Time that ended in Supreme Court cassation and judicial review for the latter, in their favor.

After the end of the 32-year authoritarian rule of Soeharto’s New Order in 1998, Herlambang notes that Indonesia has gained more democracy, decentralization and a rise in local business elites. 

Unlike the Soeharto years, when such lawsuits were few, the reform era sees more civil lawsuits against the press, with insult and defamation as the dominant issue.

Before filing a lawsuit, the course complainants should take is to comply with press law procedure. First use the right to reply. If that does not satisfy, report to the Press Council that mediates public complaints about the press. If that fails, go to court but knowing it could be costly and generate unwanted publicity.

Indonesia has legally based press freedom under the 1999 Press Law and Article 28F of the Constitution and yet Indonesia currently ranks 138 out of 180 in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders.

Indonesia’s press scored 40.75 in a range from 1 to 100. The lower the score the greater the press freedom is recognized. Thailand’s position is 134. Timor Leste is 103. Taiwan, at 51, is the lead Asian nation. At the summit is Finland.

So long as unjustifiable lawsuits against press freedom continue, Indonesia’s press will not make the top ranks of the World Press Freedom Index. Journalists should realize this.

In exercising their press freedom, undaunted and unfazed reporters should work with unchallenged accuracy and utmost carefulness. They should get the full support of both their editors and their media outlet for the reporting they do. They should also learn the law and press law procedure. 

In the meantime, after their thorough talk-thru, the sands of Senggigi Beach on the west coast of Lombok beckon for an evening of contemplation.


The writer teaches at Dr. Soetomo Press Institute, Jakarta

- See more at: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/02/09/on-lawsuits-against-press-freedom.html#sthash.Bsaotg1X.dpuf

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