Mon, 26 May 2003

Media not to blame for reports on rights abuses

Muninggar Sri Saraswati, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The media cannot not be required to take legal responsibility for its coverage of the ongoing military operation in Aceh because a news report is not the absolute truth, a practitioner has said.

"Media reports cannot be considered to be the absolute truth because they are based on information from sources," Press Council chairman Atmakusumah Astraatmaja told The Jakarta Post over the weekend.

Courts here, Atmakusumah said, had declared a news report was not the truth in a legal sense. He was referring to the verdict issued by the Central Jakarta District Court on June 6, 2000, that rejected the lawsuit filed by former president Soeharto against Time magazine.

The court turned down Soeharto's lawsuit against Time for libel following the weekly's article that accused the longtime ruler of amassing personal wealth. In their verdict, the panel of three judges ruled that a news report was not the truth in a legal sense.

Atmakusumah likened a news report to an intelligence report, which could not be categorized as a legal truth in court.

"People must understand that. Moreover, a journalist has no equipment and legal basis, compared with intelligence officers. A journalist can only interview people, instead of interrogating, to obtain news," he said.

Atmakusumah was commenting on the Indonesia Military (TNI) Headquarters, which recently announced its plan to establish an investigative team to verify media reports on alleged abuses committed by its troops during their operations in Aceh.

The announcement followed media reports on civilian casualties at the hands of the military in Bireuen village on Thursday.

TNI asked on Saturday two Tempo Newsroom journalists to join a military unit to verify the report, although their newspaper in Jakarta printed the report as quoted from AFP.

If the team finds the report to be true, TNI will take severe action against the military personnel involved. But if the report cannot be verified, the military will take legal action against the media.

Martial law administrator in Aceh Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya earlier announced his intention to curb the media covering the integrated operations in Aceh.

Tempo chief editor Bambang Harymurti said he welcomed TNI's decision to investigate the case and encourage the media to help the investigation efforts.

"If this is aimed at enforcing the law and justice, we are obliged to help the investigation as far as we can," he told a seminar on Saturday.

Atmakusumah praised the military's willingness to investigate alleged abuses by its personnel. However, he suggested that the military involve independent observers for the purpose.

"Why don't they involve the National Commission on Human Rights? It is more capable than journalists, whose main job is to collect news," he asserted.

Sjafrie has said that the military has no authority to involve independent observers in the investigation into alleged human rights violations during the military operation because the authority lies "in the hands of the government."

Both Atmakusumah and Bambang agreed that the media should remain impartial under any conditions, particularly martial law.

"Martial law grants the military extraordinary power. That's why the media should provide facts about the conflict in Aceh as transparently as possible, to prevent abuse of power.

"I'm not anti-TNI or against the Republic of Indonesia, but I believe we can influence the Acehnese to remain with the republic by publishing fair and balanced news," Bambang said.

He urged the media not to consider the Acehnese and GAM as enemies but "brothers and sisters who have lost their way."