Thu, 02 Oct 2003

Terror against the press

The seizure of the house of prominent journalist Goenawan Mohamad by the East Jakarta District Court on Monday is just the latest sign of how lamentable the legal system in this country is.

Goenawan is being sued for libel by the powerful, but controversial, businessman Tomy Winata. The point of contention is Goenawan's statement in the Koran Tempo daily on March 12, 2003, in which he made an appeal for people to fight against rampant thuggery in this country. He was referring to an earlier attack on the offices of Tempo magazine, the mother publication of Koran Tempo. Goenawan made the statement four days after a mob, the members of which claimed they were Tomy's men, attacked the magazine's offices on Jalan Proklamasi in Central Jakarta and beat some of its journalists, including the magazine's chief editor. What triggered the attack was an article in the magazine's March 3 edition that linked Tomy with a fire that devastated part of the Tanah Abang market.

This is the second time in 10 years, at least, that Goenawan has come face to face with the wrath of the powerful. In 1994, the respected Tempo magazine which he helped found was closed down by the New Order government. At that time however, Indonesia was under the Soeharto government, whose repressive nature victimized countless other people.

In the present case, several questions need to be asked about the seizure. Was the decision to seize the house sensible and reasonable? The law requires that the seizure of property should be based on those considerations. Did the judges who ordered the seizure have solid reasons to believe that Goenawan would likely sell the house, so that the seizure was preventative in nature?

Those questions have so far not been answered. But what is clear is that Goenawan is no thief and therefore there should be no basis for the move. Or could it precisely be because he is not a thief that he is receiving this kind of treatment? Isn't the legal apparatus normally very lenient toward thieves, especially those who steal huge amounts of money from the state's coffers?

In recent memory, few corruptors have received this kind of treatment. One recent case involved prominent banker Samadikun Hartono. His house was seized after he was proven guilty of embezzlement to the tune of Rp 17.25 billion. But before the seizure took place the businessman and his had family mysteriously disappeared.

In this light, we can see how close to the truth is the observation of Mochtar Pabottingi. This noted scholar of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences said during a seminar to celebrate Independence Day in August that "crime pays and it pays enormously."

Second, the speed of the seizure took many legal experts by surprise. It took only four days after the court issued the seizure warrant, something which is very unusual.

Third, the seizure took place without advance notice, either to Goenawan or his lawyers. Fourth, without producing any documentation on the property, how could the bailiff be so certain that the house belonged to Goenawan?

Along with Goenawan's house, the court also ordered the seizure of the Koran Tempo offices in Kebayoran Baru in South Jakarta. Although Goenawan and his family can still live in the house, the seizure amounts to nothing less than an act of terror against Goenawan and his family.

Given the huge backlog of cases in the High Court and Supreme Court, it can take years for a lawsuit to be processed and living in a house under court supervision for such a long time is a punishment in itself. And, as Goenawan is a well-known figure in the media world, the message which the seizure conveys is loud and clear: "Don't meddle with power" -- power, in this case, pertaining to either business or bureaucracy, or a devil's alliance between the two.

As Goenawan is a prominent figure in the Indonesian press, the terror also appears to be addressed to the press as a whole. In today's political climate where a transition is taking place from dictatorship to democracy, the message is really scary. It speaks volumes for the chances of success of the transition process itself. A relatively free press, often cited as the only fruit of reform, is truly under serious threat.

If the authorities fail to respond to this case swiftly, they will create the impression that they are supportive of the moves to terrorize the press. The most pertinent action to be taken by the government, then, is to investigate the three judges who gave the order to seize Goenawan's house, although as the Manulife case showed, even this may not be enough to guarantee that justice will be done. However, failure to take action would be tantamount to the resurrection of the New Order.

On the other hand, it is essential that the press, despite business competition and rivalry, stays united. Otherwise, the Damoclean sword of the post-New Order era will continue to hang over its head.