Wed, 24 Dec 2003

Tempo case: Thuggery shadows press freedom

M. Taufiqurrahman, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The ongoing lawsuits against Tempo magazine management and journalists at three district courts in Jakarta are landmark cases in the history of the local press, which only recently gained freedom.

The high-profile trials in the last nine months have drawn public attention not only because Tempo is the most respected and, in circulation terms, the largest newsmagazine but because it is a battle between the press and thuggery.

Physical attacks on media offices and journalists by people acting on behalf of businessmen, state officials or even political parties are nothing new here, but none have ever led to the inside of a courtroom.

Businessman Tomy Winata, who leads the Artha Graha Group, is suing Tempo for mentioning in its March 3 to March 9 edition that an anonymous source claimed some time before the fire that he had seen a proposal from Tomy's company for the renovation of Tanah Abang market, the biggest textile market in Southeast Asia. The proposal allegedly stated the cost of renovation at Rp 53 billion (US$6.24 million).

The edition came out two weeks after a fire destroyed the huge market on Feb. 19. The fire destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of people.

Tempo chief editor Bambang Harymurti and journalists Ahmad Taufik and T. Iskandar Ali have been charged with publishing a report that had the capacity to provoke public disorder as stipulated in the 1946 Criminal Code. The offense carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

A lawsuit was filed amid the public uproar that followed verbal and physical attacks on Tempo journalists and offices on Jl. Proklamasi, Central Jakarta, on March 8.

The attack was conducted in protest against the Tempo article by about 100 men who claimed to be Tomy's security guards, right under the watchful eyes of the police.

The attackers, led by Tomy's minions David Tjioe, alias A Miauw, and Hidayat Lukman, alias Teddy Uban, claimed the article had prompted the Tanah Abang fire victims to attack the property of Artha Graha and workers.

Community leaders, politicians, journalists and defenders of press freedom denounced the act, calling it an act of thuggery that posed a serious threat to press freedom.

Noted lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis said the attack indicated a conspiracy between the authorities and the capital, between thuggery and bureaucracy that would threaten the press, which stood as the fourth pillar of democracy.

"The Press Law has devised a mechanism for objecting or responding to news considered to be libelous. If Tomy Winata feels he has been libeled, he can use that mechanism," Todung said, referring to Law No. 40/1999.

And it was only after public outcry that David and Teddy were prosecuted for violating articles 335 and 352 of the Criminal Code on violence against others and on minor assault, which carry a maximum of three month in prison and one year in jail respectively.

Legal experts and the press community lamented the prosecution, since it did not charge the suspects under the Press Law with hampering journalists in conducting their journalistic duties.

And although court proceedings revealed that the defendants did assault the journalists, judges cleared David of all charges and sentenced Teddy to only five months in prison with a 10-month probation.

Several irregularities cast a shadow over the entire legal process, leading to skepticism about the court proceedings.

It is no secret that Tomy has close ties with military and police top brass.

Media law expert Hinca IP Pandjaitan of the Indonesia Media Law and Policy Center lambasted the law enforcers, saying they failed to see the case from the journalists' point of view.

"Article 6 of the law states that the press works in the public domain, either to criticize or to correct for the sake of public interest. In light of this, the libel charge is nonsense," Pandjaitan told The Jakarta Post.

Despite public opposition against his legal moves, Tomy charged on. He filed another civil lawsuit against Koran Tempo daily and Tempo media group co-founder Goenawan Muhamad, over news articles, one of which was titled Don't let the country fall into the hands of thugs/TW.

In the lawsuit he demanded that asset preservation orders be issued on Koran Tempo and Goenawan properties in the case of them being needed as collateral on payment for damages. Judges issued the orders just one week after the request.

The speedy issuance of the orders, and the fact that Goenawan is an icon of the Indonesian press who was highly unlikely to run away from prosecution, ignited suspicion that the judiciary had succumbed to Tomy's financial clout.

Once again the public was alarmed by a possible breach in the judiciary. Despite calls from the public for the court to be free of any outside interference, the assets preservation orders have yet to be canceled. The one for Goenawan's house has already been served, whereas the one on Koran Tempo offices has not.

The trial against Tempo is far from over, but with all the irregularities marring the legal process, the battle between thuggery and press freedom might have just began.

Time line of Tempo trial

Feb. 19 : Tanah Abang textile market is gutted by fire.

March 3 : Tempo runs an article titled Ada Tomy di Tenabang? that suggests Tomy Winata had something to do with the fire.

March 8 : Tomy's supporters swarm the Tempo offices on Jl. Diponegoro, Central Jakarta, protesting the article. Tempo chief editor Bambang Harymurti and a journalist are assaulted.

March 14 : Community leaders, politicians and journalists join the chorus in condemning the attack, saying it is an act of thuggery and an insult to press freedom.

March 17 : Police start a probe into the attack by questioning minions of Tomy. David Tjioe, alias A Miauw, and Hidayat Lukman, alias Teddy Uban, are among those questioned.

March 27 : Bambang and journalist Ahmad Taufik are declared suspects in a libel suit, after Tomy filed a complaint against the March 3 article.

April 16 : Trial on the attack starts, with the journalists' attackers being charged with a minor offense.

June 5 : Tomy sues PT Tempo Inti Media and demands US$14.6 million in compensation for publishing a statement by Tempo co- founder Goenawan Muhamad, who likened him to a thug.

July 10 : David, leader of the Tempo attack, is acquitted while Teddy is sentenced to five months in prison with a 10-month probation.

Sept. 30 : The East Jakarta District Court issues asset preservation orders on Goenawan's house in East Jakarta and the offices of Koran Tempo daily.

Oct. 1 : The trial filed by Tomy against Goenawan starts, with PT Tempo Inti Media and defense lawyers labeling it unlawful.

Oct. 13 : Tempo journalists stand trial for libeling Tomy.