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Press Freedom Boosted in Indonesia
Supreme Court Overturns Ruling Against Magazine Editor

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 11, 2006

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Feb. 10 -- In a ruling hailed by press freedom advocates, Indonesia's Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the editor of a prominent weekly magazine did not defame a powerful businessman. The court overturned a lower court ruling and threw out the editor's one-year prison sentence.

"This is good for press freedom in Indonesia," said Eddy Suprapto, president of the Alliance of Independent Journalists. "It's not just good for us, but for the people."

The central Jakarta district court had sentenced the editor, Bambang Harymurti, 48, to one year in prison in September 2004 for defamation and "inciting unrest" after the magazine, Tempo, published an article suggesting that Tomy Winata, a banking and real estate tycoon, could stand to gain from a suspicious fire that gutted a large market in Jakarta. An appeals court upheld the decision.

In overturning the lower court decision, the Supreme Court set a precedent by using a 1999 press law rather than the criminal code to review the case. The press law is based on the public's right to be informed and on principles of fairness in reporting.

"The press is the fourth estate," and its function must be protected, said Justice Djoko Sarwoko.

Indonesian courts are not bound by precedent, but Harymurti and his defense team say they hope to use the decision to educate journalists, judges and prosecutors.

"I hope this will become like New York Times v. Sullivan ," said Harymurti, referring to a 1964 ruling that became a cornerstone of press freedom in the United States.

Indonesia's news media, lively if somewhat undisciplined, are trying to strengthen the institution of journalism in a society molded by decades of authoritarianism. Harymurti's appeal was a bright note in a period in which press freedom has been under fresh attack. Plaintiffs continue to sue reporters for up to $1 million in civil libel suits. A new regulation bans local broadcasters from directly relaying news from foreign television and radio stations. For the moment, though, Harymurti's supporters just want to enjoy the victory.

Tempo is often likened to Time magazine, and Harymurti's case drew international attention, with observers flying in from Australia, Asia and Europe to attend his trial.

The case's high profile was beneficial, said Janet Steele, a media professor at George Washington University who is in Jakarta on a Fulbright fellowship. "It made a lot of people think: Should a journalist ever go to prison for doing his job?"

Thursday "was just a really happy day," said Steele, author of "Wars Within," a book about Tempo during part of the 32-year rule of the former dictator Suharto.

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