Bambang Harymurti, the editor of the independent weekly Tempo, was sentenced to a year in prison for libelling an Indonesian businessman. Thirty-two press freedom groups have condemned the conviction and sentence as a major blow to free expression and have called for an overhaul of the defamation laws.
Reporters Without Borders welcomed the Supreme Court’s acquittal of Bambang Harymurti, editor of the weekly Tempo, overturning his one-year prison sentence for defamation of businessman Tomy Winata.
The judges at the hearing on 9 February 2006 set aside the sentence against the renowned journalist handed down by the Jakarta district court in 2004, which tried him under the criminal code. The Supreme Court ruled that the lower court should have tried him under the press law.
“We want to ensure that journalists are protected,” said Djoko Sarwono, spokesperson for the Supreme Court. “This decision is not a personal victory but a victory for all Indonesian journalists,” said Harymurti.
Although this decision marks a step forward for press freedom in Indonesia, several other defamation cases are still likely to be tried under the criminal code.
Prison sentence for Tempo editor unacceptable
The undersigned freedom of expression and press freedom organisations strongly condemn the decision of the Central Jakarta Court to sentence Bambang Harymurti, the editor of Tempo magazine, to a year’s imprisonment for defamation. We are united in our view that such a disproportionate sanction is a serious setback for freedom of expression, reversing gains made since the fall of the Suharto regime. The decision is also an unfortunate development for the broader evolution of democratic values, just as Indonesia celebrates its first direct presidential election.
Bambang Harymurti, along with two Tempo journalists, were sued by businessman Tomy Winata for an article published in the 3-9 March 2003 edition of Tempo, which contained allegations that Tomy Winata stood to profit from a February 2003 fire that destroyed the Tanah Abang textile market in Jakarta and that he might be responsible for the blaze. The decision, based on antiquated criminal defamation laws, acquitted the two journalists, placing sole responsibility on Harymurti and sentencing him to a one-year prison term. Harymurti is free pending an appeal in the case.
We welcome the acquittals of the two journalists but strongly denounce the sentence imposed on Harymurti. In our view, imprisonment for defamation can never be legitimate and, on its own, represents a breach of the right to freedom of expression regardless of the statements which have been challenged. The decision, if not reversed, will undoubtedly have a severe chilling effect on freedom of expression in Indonesia.
We call on the Indonesian authorities to withdraw the criminal charges against Harymurti. We also call on the authorities to conduct a complete review of the defamation laws with a view to repealing criminal defamation altogether and to bringing the civil defamation laws into line with international and constitutional standards of respect for freedom of expression.
ARTICLE 19, Global Campaign for Free Expression, UK
Azerbaijan Journalists Confederation, Azerbaijan
Campaign for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), Philippines
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Canada
Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists, Jordan
Central Asian and Southern Caucasus Freedom of Expression Network (CASCFEN), Azerbaijan
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), USA
Forum Asia, Thailand
Freedom House, USA
Free Media Movement, Sri Lanka
Independent Journalists Alliance (AJI), Indonesia
Index on Censorship (IOC), UK
Internews, East Timor
Indonesian Center for Environmental Law, Indonesia
Institute for the Study on Free Flow of Information (ISAI), Indonesia
International Federation of Journalists, Belgium
International Freedom Network, UK
International Press Institute (IPI), Austria
Journalists’ Trade Union, Azerbaijan
Legal Research Institute, National Autonomous University of Mexico
National Security Archive, USA
Open Society Justice Initiative, USA
Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), France
Sanjana Hattotuwa, Rotary World Peace Scholar, Sri Lanka
South Asia Forum on Human Rights (SAFHR), Nepal
Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
Timor Lorosa’e Journalists’ Association (TLJA), East Timor
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), Canada
World Association of Newspapers (WAN), France
World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), USA