Sat, 21 Feb 2004

Govt rejects use of press law in libel disputes

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The government challenged on Friday the Press Council's appeal for the Supreme Court to abide by the press law in cases involving the media, saying the law was too lenient.

State Minister of Communications and Information Syamsul Mu'arif said that the press law did not fulfill people's sense of justice.

"Under the press law, for instance, a newspaper would only be fined for a libelous report, while the damage inflicted on the person's reputation could be much greater," Syamsul said after attending a meeting with the new members of the Press Council.

He asserted that it was preferable to use the criminal code in cases involving the media, unless the press law stipulated heavier sentences.

"Publishing an insult could have a grave consequence as millions of people would read it. The media community should propose a revision to the existing press law before we can apply it," the minister said.

In a meeting with Chief Justice Bagir Manan on Thursday, the Press Council asked all judges to abide by Press Law No. 40/1999 in cases against the press, instead of using the draconian Criminal Code which was introduced in the Dutch colonial era.

The Press Council underlined that the use of the Criminal Code had threatened freedom of the press.

Press Council chairman Ichlasul Amal said on Friday that press freedom was characteristic of democracy.

"We understand that in upholding democracy there are conflicts of interest, but the council is the agent to mediate those conflicts," Ichlasul said.

He asserted that only when press freedom was upheld, could the country continue its democratization process.

Syamsul officially submitted the presidential decree on the appointment of new Press Council members.

The press law says the council is not part of the government but an independent body whose jobs include mediating disputes involving the media.

Ichlasul said although the council is not a government agency, there is an urgent need for the government to help finance the activities of the council.

The council hosted the meeting with Syamsul at its office building, which is not air conditioned nor equipped with standard facilities.

"We would like to show the minister that this (condition) is what the council has to deal with," Ichlasul said.

In response to the statement, Syamsul promised to convey the Press Council's request to President Megawati Soekarnoputri.

The courts jailed last month Rakyat Merdeka daily editors for insulting Megawati and House of Representatives Speaker Akbar Tandjung.