If violence and intimidation was the order of the day for Indonesia’s journalists in 2011, this year is shaping up to be no better, press freedom advocates and pundits contend.
On Wednesday, France-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders released its 2011 Press Freedom Index, in which Indonesia dropped 29 places from a year earlier to 146th.
The reason to the drop, the organization said, was largely cases of journalists in Papua being killed, kidnapped and assaulted.
The safety issue could be exacerbated this year by political tensions as jockeying for the 2014 general elections intensifies and a slew of regional elections take place.
Eko Maryadi, chairman of the Alliance of Indonesian Journalists (AJI), said election coverage was always a sensitive issue, particularly for political parties.
He said many journalists had been subject to intimidation after publishing stories that did not suit the interests of local politicians, with some of those cases ending in assault.
“I’m worried that the trend could get worse this year because we’re approaching the [2014 presidential and legislative] elections,” he said.
Bambang Eka Cahya Widodo, chairman of the Elections Supervisory Board (Bawaslu), acknowledged that journalists were sometimes targeted because of their election coverage.
He cited the case of a journalist in Merauke, Papua, who was stabbed while reporting on an electoral dispute there last year.
“We’re certainly aware of these cases, but our job is restricted to resolving electoral violations, not general crimes such as assault and murder,” Bambang said. “It’s all in the hands of the police. We’d love to help, but we don’t have the capacity.”
Among the journalists assaulted last year was Banjir Ambarita, a Jakarta Globe contributor based in Jayapura, Papua. Banjir survived being stabbed by unknown assailants last March, shortly after reporting on sexual abuse of a female detainee by officers at the Jayapura Police detention center.
He said that although the police were carrying out a thorough investigation to find his attackers, the incident had left him “deeply traumatized” and wary of reporting stories involving government institutions.
Besides safety, Eko said, the other major threats to watch out for this year were self-censorship and a host of legislation deemed hostile to press freedom and rights.
“Violence is a threat that comes from outside the newsroom, but there are also threats from inside, namely interference from media owners,” he said.
“Another threat is the laws that threaten press freedom.”
Hendrayana, chairman of the Legal Aid Foundation for the Press (LBH Pers), said those laws included the 2011 Intelligence Bill and the 2002 Broadcasting Law.
Media activists are now challenging some of the more contentious articles of those laws at the Constitutional Court.
Another controversial law is the 2008 Electronic Transactions and Information Law (ITE), which treats journalists as regular users of public information and thus leaves them open to the threat of up to six years in prison for defamation.
Other legislation that makes jail time for journalists a real possibility include the 2009 Freedom of Information (KIP) Law and certain articles in the 2008 Anti-Pornography Law and the Criminal Code.
Hendrayana said LBH Pers and other groups were now fighting for the contentious articles to be reviewed in order to ensure that journalists could continue doing their jobs in safety.
“Given the sheer number of laws, we’re actually pessimistic that there will be any improvement,” Hendrayana said.
“However, we’re going to keep urging the government and law enforcers to work on these issues.”