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Press councils: the Indonesian experience

Published in: The Myanmar Times

As Myanmar moves to institute a press council to replace previous systems of media control, regional perspectives could provide some salient lessons. I have been a journalist in Indonesia for more than 20 years and have seen our media environment change from authoritarian to greater openness.

When President Suharto stepped down from power in May 1998, hundreds of previously underground journalists emerged to push for the reform of Indonesia’s press law. One of their primary goals was to replace the state-sanctioned journalist association with an independent press council. With careful compromise, members of a formerly illegal journalist association did something previously unthinkable: they formed a coalition with members of the state-sponsored Indonesian Journalists Association to rewrite the law and create a self-regulatory body to mediate media disputes.

In September 1999, when BJ Habibie succeeded Suharto as president, he promulgated a new press law that expanded press freedom and safeguarded freedom of expression. The Press Law prohibits the government from banning any newspaper, protects freedom of association, including the formation of journalist unions, and led to the establishment of an independent press council. Government officials cannot sit on the nine-member body. It contrasts sharply with Suharto’s press council, set up in 1968 and later amended through the 1983 Press Law, which was always chaired by the government’s minister of information.

President Habibie inaugurated Indonesia’s new press council in April 2000 with nine councillors – three represent journalists, three represent media owners and three represent the public – who in turn elected Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, a lecturer of journalism, to be their chairman.

When Muslim scholar Abdurrahman Wahid won the 2000 election and succeeded Habibie, he took the council a step further and disbanded the Ministry of Information altogether. President Wahid said a democratic state does not need censorship. He supported the press council and turned it into a complaints mechanism, enabling it to adjudicate complaints from the public. The mechanism began with the establishment of a committee to select the first councillors under the revised system. Within a few months, more than 20 new journalist and publisher associations emerged to nominate candidates.

In 2003, the press council evolved again when it voted that its chairperson would be a non-media person – the idea being that a member of the public, rather than a journalist or publisher, would be more independent. The chairmanship has since been held by a retired college president and a retired chairman of Indonesia’s Supreme Court.

According to the press council, it has gradually resolved more media disputes, from 101 cases in 2003 to 207 in 2006 and 511 in 2011. Today, it receives an estimated three complaints a week, mostly involving allegations of unbalanced coverage, unreliable sources, breaches of privacy, indecency, blackmail, racism and perceived insults. The council says 97 percent of the cases have reached “amicable solutions”. Moreover, a degree of transparency is found on the council’s own website, which reports on the substance of complaints and identifies the parties involved.

But attacks on free speech persist because a number of problematic laws remain on the books. Influential persons usually enlist the police – not the press council – to “resolve” disputes, and that typically means harassing or intimidating journalists. These laws, such as restrictive internet legislation and criminal defamation provisions, enable these powerful figures, including public officials, to bring criminal charges against activists, journalists, consumers and others who criticise them.

For instance, in 2009 a housewife was jailed for three weeks and spent over 12 months in the criminal justice process simply for sending a message to friends on Facebook complaining about medical treatment. In another case, a newspaper columnist was convicted of defamation in 2008 and given a suspended prison sentence for writing an opinion column that criticised the Indonesian attorney general’s decision to ban a high school history textbook.

Criminal defamation investigations and prosecutions can have a dramatic impact on the lives of those accused. Some of those charged with defamation lost their jobs and had difficulty finding more work. Others suffered professional setbacks while they endured lengthy prosecutions, some of which lasted for years. Some reported that their personal and professional relationships were strained by the stigma of prosecution or conviction.

In December 2008, the Supreme Court issued a circular recommending Indonesian courts seek “expert testimonies” from the press council when handling defamation trials. In February 2012, the press council signed an agreement with the national police, in which the police agreed to forward any press-related defamation complaints to the press council. “We cannot repeal the defamation articles but we try to minimise the damages,” said Atmakusumah Astraatmadja.

It’s been 12 years since the post-Suharto press council was born. If there is a lesson for Myanmar from Indonesia, it is that while a genuinely independent press council can be an important tool to help establish and protect a free press, it is not a silver bullet. Parliament must be vigilant to repeal repressive criminal defamation laws and pass legislation that will align the country with international human rights standards on freedom of expression and press freedom.

(Andreas Harsono, Human Rights Watch’s Indonesia researcher, helped set up the Alliance of Independent Journalists and the Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information in Jakarta, involved in writing the 1999 Press Law.)  

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