Indonesia: libel and the law
19 Nov 08

Indonesia’s rich and powerful such as Aburiza Bakrie prefer to subject media outlets to criminal proceedings rather than use the press law, writes David Jardine

Above the ruck and reel of the city traffic the sound of crisp litigation documents being filed comes through the Indonesian air. Yet again, a hugely influential, hugely wealthy businessman pursues critics in the media with a defamation suit, yet again a well-placed state official sues the media for ‘criminal libel’.

In the latest round of such attempts to ruin and silence the independent Indonesian media, Aburizal Bakrie, one of the country’s wealthiest individuals, head of the multi-interest Bakrie & Brothers conglomerate and minister of people’s welfare in the cabinet of President Yudhoyono, has filed a defamation action against the leading current affairs weekly Tempo, accusing the magazine of ‘character assassination’.

A Bakrie company, Lapindo, is at the heart of the East Java mudflow crisis which has seen thousands of families displaced and dispossessed over the past two years while the minister has remained in his government post. However, the aggrieved party has taken exception to the magazine’s ‘negative’ reporting on the group’s plummeting share value, which was the ostensible cause of the closure of the Jakarta Stock Exchange (JSX) in late October.

It remains to be seen whether the Bakrie group will now sue the daily Jakarta Post for juxtaposing on its front page a report about the litigation and another which leads: ‘Fuelled primarily by negative sentiment over the lack of transparency in its debt-related problems, shares in the Bakrie Group plunged on Tuesday, with analysts seeing no end in sight to the group’s debt saga.’ (Wednesday Nov 19)

Tempo, in short, is being made to be the fall guy for the discomfiture of a very rich business figure. The magazine is no stranger to this strongarm stuff, which in the past few years has become the favoured means of intimidation of politicians, businessmen, military men and public officials alike. Taking media representatives to court in a country where the judiciary can easily be bought is thought to be more ‘seemly’ and more effective than the use of thugs.

The Bakrie group has refused to use the press law and has decided instead to pursue a hugely expensive court action. It has rejected the idea of allowing the magazine to print a full rebuttal on the grounds that it has clashed many times with ‘Tempo’ in the past.

Tempo and its sister publication, the Indonesian-language Koran Tempo, were the targets of hugely expensive litigation three years ago by the well-placed businessman Tommy Winata, a man with strong connections to former President Megawati Soekarnoputra, and went through a very long court process on that account.

Meanwhile, in the old port city of Makassar, provincial capital of South Sulawesi, the police chief is pursuing court action against a journalist for criticisms posted in a local newspaper. The policeman has refused to use the right of rebuttal.

The Association of Independent Journalists has vigorously protested this action. The AIJ is particularly angry over the use of the criminal code instead of the press law in disputes of this kind.

A further case is even more troubling. A letter writer to an Indonesian publication who complained of serious irregularities is being sued for defamation by the property developer he claimed had wronged him. This is another blatant substitution of the criminal code for the press law. If successful, it will clearly intimidate many would-be letter writers.

In all of these cases, the litigants are extremely well-placed and prefer the minatory business of litigation to the ‘riskier’ business of exchange of opinions. In short, the powerful in Indonesia continue ten years into the reform era to ignore the lessons of democratic reform.