Thu, 27 May 2004

Experts suggest ombudsman for media

Urip Hudiono, Jakarta

In light of increasing libel suits against the press, experts are suggesting that media enterprises establish an ombudsman to examine the news before publication and to mediate in case of complaints.

Deputy chairman of the Press Council, R.H. Siregar, told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday that it would be wise for every media enterprise to have an unit to ensure that all of their news adheres to the basic principles of journalism, including the cross-checking of potentially libelous information.

"The ombudsman unit would also have the task of investigating any violations of the journalists' code of ethics," he said.

The unit should be independent of the editorial board, but could consist of senior or former editors of the company, besides other media experts, Siregar added.

Interviewed separately, Hinca I.P. Panjaitan from the Indonesia Media Law and Policy Center said that an ombudsman would help in finding a more simple and effective settlement of libel complaints.

"The settlement would be based on the right to respond in accordance with the Press Law, not on fines or imprisonment as stipulated in the Criminal Code," he said.

Currently only a few media enterprises have such an ombudsman, including Jawa Pos, which settled a libel complaint made by former chief of the Army's Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad), Lt. Gen. Djaja Suparman, in an article that hinted at his involvement in the 2002 Bali bombings, by publishing a response from Suparman.

The country's media has been under fire in recent libel lawsuits from state officials and businessmen, the indictments of which were based on the Criminal Code, not the Press Law.

On May 17, a court ordered Tempo magazine cofounder Goenawan Mohamad to publish an apology to well-connected tycoon Tomy Winata in a libel suit. In January, another court ordered the Koran Tempo daily to pay a US$1 million fine to Tomy, while last December the same court also ordered the daily to publicly apologize to the owner of the ailing Texmaco group, Marimutu Sinivasan.

Earlier this month, Trust weekly was ordered to pay a fine of Rp 1 billion ($111,111) for defaming businessman John Hamenda and his company PT Petindo Perkasa.

Journalists and editors of the Rakyat Merdeka daily were convicted last year of defaming President Megawati and House of Representatives Speaker Akbar Tandjung.

Ignatius Haryanto of the Institute for Press Freedom and Development Studies (LSPP) said that the recent cases indicated that many media enterprises had not yet realized the importance of an ombudsman.

"Such a committee would not muzzle press freedom by becoming a form of self-censorship, as it would only act as an advisor to the editorial board and could not interfere with any editorial decision.

"The final word -- and responsibility -- would still be the board's," he said.

Meanwhile, concerning the Press Law, Siregar said that Law No. 40/1999 needed to be amended, as it did not incorporate specific stipulations concerning libel.

Hinca, however, said that the Press Law needed no amendment.

"What is needed now is familiarization with the concept of people's right to respond and to convey that understanding to the public.

"The basic philosophy underlying the media and the Press Law is 'words against words', not 'words versus imprisonment'," he remarked.