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A police officer kicks photographer Ikshan Arham of the Rakyat Sulsel newspaper during a  student protest at Makassar State University on November 13, 2014. Police allegedly assaulted 10 journalists that day, but no officers have been prosecuted for those abuses.  © 2014 Hasrul Said/Radar Makassar

(Jakarta) - The Indonesian government should adopt measures to ensure that state security forces who physically attack journalists are suspended and appropriately prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said today. New data and case research shows a disturbing increase in assaults on journalists in the past two years.

Irina Bokova, the director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which chose Jakarta as global host for its annual World Press Freedom Day commemoration on May 3, 2017, should use the occasion to publicly address the increase in assaults on journalists and urge President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to take more decisive action in response.

“World Press Freedom Day should be a time to celebrate the role journalists play in society, but in Indonesia the focus too often is on reporters’ fears,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Indonesian government should reverse the dangerous deterioration of press freedom in the country and prosecute security force personnel who physically assault journalists.”

The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), a nongovernmental union, reported that there were 78 incidents in 2016 of violent attacks on journalists, including by security forces, compared with 42 in 2015, and 40 in 2014. AJI found that the attackers have been brought to justice in only a very few of those 78 incidents. Indonesia’s 1999 Press Law provides explicit protection for journalists, including up to two years in prison and fines of 500 million rupiah (US$44,000) for anyone who physically attacks a journalist.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 18 journalists and six human rights advocates in Balikpapan, Banten, Jakarta, Jayapura, Makassar, Medan, Padang, Pekanbaru, and Surabaya. They described an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship in many newsrooms due to abuses and threats by security forces and local authorities that go unpunished and that, most of the time, are not even rigorously investigated.

The abuses include destruction of journalists’ equipment (especially cameras and memory cards), harassment, intimidation, threats, and assault. These abuses have occurred in all of Indonesia’s major islands, typically in provincial capitals and smaller cities. They are less common in Jakarta, the national capital, where journalists are more aware of their rights and are supported by stronger professional organizations.

Human Rights Watch investigated three incidents of violent assaults involving five journalists. All had sought resolution of their cases and were concerned about possible reprisals for publicly disclosing details of their abuse.

The provinces of Papua and West Papua – (commonly referred to jointly as “Papua”) – remain particularly difficult places for both Indonesian and foreign journalists. Papuan journalists in particular face harassment, intimidation, and at times violence from security forces and pro-independence forces when they report on corruption, rights abuses, land grabs, and other sensitive topics. Indonesian authorities continue to restrict access by foreign journalists to Papua on spurious “security” grounds despite Jokowi’s May 10, 2015, announcement that accredited foreign media would have unimpeded access to Papua.

Indonesia’s considerable gains in media freedom since the fall of authoritarian President Suharto in 1998 will not be sustainable if the government does not respond promptly and vigorously when journalists and media organizations are harassed or suffer violence, Human Rights Watch said. To ensure that laws protecting journalists are enforced, the Jokowi government should insist that state agencies, notably the police and armed forces, adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward physical abuse of journalists.

Members of those forces suspected of assaulting a journalist should be suspended from the force and, as evidence warrants, criminally prosecuted. Any official who engages in abusive efforts to compel private settlements of assault cases should also be relieved of duty. Finally, the government should create appropriate educational programs on media freedom for government officials, police, and military personnel.

UNESCO and other international donors should support the efforts of nongovernmental media advocacy groups, particularly those seeking to open offices in Indonesia’s provinces, to help educate journalists about their rights and legal avenues for accountability when those rights are violated, Human Rights Watch said. UNESCO should also support the Indonesian Press Council in conducting a public education campaign on freedom of expression.

“The Indonesian government has an obligation to address the security threats to journalists so that they don’t risk physical violence for doing their jobs,” Kine said. “World Press Freedom Day observances in Jakarta will be a cynical public relations exercise unless the Indonesian government, with UNESCO’s help, puts media freedom at the top of the agenda.”

Attacks on Journalists

Media freedom in Indonesia has improved significantly in the nearly two decades since the end of the authoritarian rule of President Suharto. Indonesia now has hundreds of television stations (including cable), more than 2,000 radio stations, and 1,000 newspapers, as well as web-based media outlets. Those outlets are owned and operated by 13 media conglomerates. The number of reporters has increased from about 15,000 during the Suharto era to at least 100,000 today. However, in recent years there has been an uptick in reports of harassment and intimidation of journalists, and, more recently, a sharp increase in reported cases of physical assaults on journalists.

The following cases detail the risks that reporters can face when covering sensitive stories and the failure of the security forces and the justice system to provide accountability.

Iqbal Lubis, Tempo Group photographer
Vincent Waldy, Metro TV videographer
Attacked by police officers covering student demonstration in Makassar, November 13, 2014

On November 13, 2014, Iqbal Lubis, a photographer for the Tempo Group, went to the campus of Makassar State University to photograph student protests against the Jokowi government’s decision to raise the price of gasoline. The protest had been going on for about a week.

The protests that day devolved into violence, with students throwing stones at several hundred police. The police – with full riot gear, body shields, batons, teargas, and anti-riot vehicles – had deployed on the campus perimeter to ensure the protests did not spill out into the surrounding neighborhood.

Lubis told Human Rights Watch said that on the afternoon of November 13, assembled police were informed via two-way radio that students had shot Makassar’s deputy police chief, Totok Lisdiarto, with an arrow.

The police became angry, with some shouting “Let’s go! Let’s go!”

Lubis said that hundreds of police entered the campus and began chasing the students, who tried to flee. The police kicked over motorcycles parked on the campus and smashed the windshields of parked cars. They entered classrooms and ordered students to leave. Some police prevented their colleagues from smashing campus windows. Lubis said that he along with more than a dozen other journalists followed the police as they advanced deeper into the campus. Some police shouted, “Arrest! Arrest!”

Police punched and kicked an elderly man students identified as a deputy dean. As police handcuffed the man and led him to a nearby police car, several female students started crying and screaming. Lubis, along with Vincent Waldy of Metro TV, left the main group of journalists and saw police officers surround a group of students under a tree. The police told the female students to leave and began to punch and kick the sole male student. Lubis took photos as police beat the student, ripping the student’s shirt. Lubis said:

Suddenly, a police shield hit my camera. I told the policeman [who hit me] that I was a journalist. I showed them my press card. But more police officers [approached]. I recognized their uniforms: Brimob [Mobile Brigade] and Sabhara [Anti-Riot] police. They hit me with their bare hands and their shields. I used my hands to deflect most of the beatings to my head. It saved me from serious injuries. I only got bruises on my hands.

Waldy tried to stop police from beating Lubis, telling them he was a journalist. Lubis took the opportunity to run away, and police then began hitting Waldy. Waldy said:

I approached Iqbal [Lubis] and dragged him away [from the police]. I said that we were journalists. I tried to stop the police pushing Iqbal. Iqbal managed to run. Suddenly a Brimob officer hit me from the left and I was immediately bleeding from my forehead. I did not see the person or what he used to beat me. My guess is it was an anti-riot shield. It was heavy and big. I momentarily lost consciousness and fell to the ground.

Several other journalists approached and took photos of Waldy being beaten. Others tried to protect Waldy. Lubis said:

Police shouted, “No photo! No photo!” I kept running away but two Brimob officers chased me. A third Brimob officer stopped me. But another cameraman, Ikhsan Arham, shouted that I was a journalist. One officer punched Arham, who became emotional. Arham said if [the police] wanted to fight, they should have a one-on-one fight. His statement apparently changed the police [attitude]. Those Brimob let me go. Arham told me that Waldy was bleeding and had been rushed to a hospital.

One of Waldy’s colleagues took him to nearby Faisal Hospital, where doctors closed the gash on his forehead with five stitches. Encouraged by his colleagues to report the attack to the police, that evening he and an adviser from a nongovernment legal group went to the Makassar police station. Two weeks later the police summoned him again to give more information about the attack. The police asked him to identify the attacker, but Waldy could not because he had not seen his assailant.

Lubis also sought redress for his injuries. He said he could identify one of the five or more police officers who attacked him because other journalists had recorded his name badge in video and photographs.

The following day, November 14, police summoned Lubis to the Makassar police precinct to make a formal complaint against the police who assaulted him. Representatives of the Alliance of Independent Journalists and the Indonesian Photojournalists Association accompanied him. Three days later, police summoned Lubis to repeat his testimony, which he did on November 19. At that session, police investigators asked him 22 questions about the incident.

For a month afterward, a coalition of journalist and student groups staged daily protests demanding accountability for Lubis. But false rumors circulated that Lubis and the other journalists assaulted on November 13 had benefited from an informal agreement with the Makassar police that included replacing the journalists’ damaged cameras in exchange for not pressing charges. Lubis said:

I have not met the police chief since the incident. I borrowed my friends’ cameras to keep on working. I am just a freelancer. I get my pay per photo. In the next three months, I avoided the Makassar police precinct. I am traumatized. Until now there has been no trial of the police officers who beat the students and journalists.

He said in March 2017 that there has been no movement in his case and the police who attacked him have not been punished.

Waldy similarly has said he heard nothing about prosecutions of police for the beatings:

Until now there’s been no follow up from the police. I have learned my lesson. It’s better to be extremely careful when covering the police. They can attack you without any reason. It was chaotic. We journalists have to take care of ourselves.

Fadjriani Langgeng, the director of the legal group, the Press Legal Aid Institute (LBH Pers) in  Makassar, said her office documented police assaults on November 13 on 10 journalists, including from media outlets Metro TV, Tempo, Celebes TV, and the Rakyat Sulsel daily newspaper. She said that the lack of police response to their complaints means “the cases are going nowhere.”

Array Argus, Tribune (Tribun Medan) daily reporter
Andri Syafrin Poerba, MNC Group cameraman
Beaten by military personnel while covering land dispute in Medan, August 15, 2016

On August 15, 2016, Array Argus from the Tribune in Medan covered a land rights protest by residents of the city’s Sarirejo district near the Soewondo Air Force base. The dispute over 5,000 hectares of land hinged on the Air Force’s rejection of a Supreme Court ruling that the disputed land belonged to the residents and could not be used for a multistory residential building

Argus went to the protest site with Teddy Akbari, a reporter for the Sumut Pos daily, at about 3 p.m. At the edge of the protest site they encountered a woman who tearfully claimed that Air Force personnel had “kidnapped” her son. While they interviewed the woman, military trucks arrived on the scene and soldiers in uniform began using batons to disperse protesting residents, Argus said. A uniformed Air Force officer approached Argus and demanded to see his official identity card, which Argus gave him. A nearby Air Force officer suddenly shouted: “That was the person!” pointing at Argus. Argus said:

They suddenly started punching and kicking me. I heard someone shout that I had taken their photo. I ran away into a small alley but it was a dead end. [Several Air Force officers] grabbed my hair. They kicked me. They beat me with their batons. They kept on shouting, “You took the photos! You took the photos!” I shouted that I did not take their photos. I fell on my back and they stomped their boots on my chest. They seized my cell phone and left.

Argus walked back to the intersection and encountered a Military Police officer who returned Argus’s phone and shouted, “You go! Get out of here!” Argus then saw the Air Force officers who had assaulted him leaving the area on foot.

Journalists arriving at the scene helped Argus get to a nearby hospital, Mitra Sejati. Doctors there gave him emergency treatment from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. A detailed medical examination revealed that Argus had several bruised ribs and internal bleeding in his right arm. They gave him oxygen. When he asked hospital staff to provide a medical statement specifying his injuries, they informed him that the police had to make the request. Argus then called the Medan Baru police, whose jurisdiction includes the Sarirejo area, and asked them to direct the hospital to issue the report. But a senior police officer refused, saying that the incident was within the jurisdiction of the Air Force and directed Argus to get the request from Air Force Military Police.

Three days later, on August 18, representatives of the nongovernmental legal advocacy organization LBH Medan, AJI Medan, and the Jakarta-based Press Council accompanied Argus to report the assault to the Air Force Military Police. The Military Police issued a request addressed to the Air Force hospital for a medical statement detailing Argus’ injuries.

Argus underwent the required examination later that day. The Air Force hospital subsequently issued a copy of Argus’ medical statement to the Air Force Military Police, but refused without explanation to give Argus a copy.

Over the next month, Argus went to the Air Force Military Police headquarters three more times at the authorities’ request to testify about the attack and his injuries. They asked him if he recognized any of his attackers. Argus gave them the names from the badge of one of his attackers and the Military Police officer who had returned his phone.

In November 2016, after Argus had testified for a fourth time at Military Police headquarters, a Military Police commander, Maj. Nicolas Sinaga, said two Air Force personnel were suspects, but would not divulge their names. Major Sinaga said he would send the dossiers to the military prosecutor in Medan. Argus learned from other sources that the attacker whose badge he had seen was one of the two suspects. However, Human Rights Watch has not been able to obtain information about any further progress in identifying and prosecuting the Air Force personnel who assaulted Argus.

Andri Syafrin Poerba, a cameraman for the MNC Group, arrived at the demonstration shortly after 3 p.m. and started taking photographs of the protesters and the soldiers. Poerba said that several soldiers suddenly surrounded him. One kicked him in the head. Poerba shouted “Journalist!” and showed them his press card. Two soldiers in jungle camouflage uniforms grabbed his arms while a third took his press card away. He said:

They dragged me to a store. They did not care. They punched me with their fists. They kicked me with their boots. They used batons against me. I lost count how many times they punched, kicked, and hit me with batons. They seized my Sony camera. I saw them taking my camera to an Air Force officer, in light blue shirt, standing nearby. After about five to eight minutes of being assaulted, I managed to get on my feet and ran toward the nearby [protesting] residents. I was bleeding from my forehead, my chin and my arms.

When Poerba’s brother took him to Mitra Sejati Hospital, staff refused to admit him. Poerba believes they feared reprisals from the Air Force. Poerba then went to Royal Prima Hospital, where doctors diagnosed several broken ribs. Poerba was hospitalized for a week.

On August 18, Poerba’s wife reported the assault to the Air Force Military Police. Poerba, after he left the hospital in September, filed an official complaint with the Medan Military Police. The Military Police wanted to know how many soldiers had assaulted him, their identities and if there were witnesses to the attack. Poerba said he told them that:

I did not recognize their faces or names. I used my hands to cover my head. There were between five and eight soldiers assaulting me. They wore only military T-shirts – no name badges.

Poerba said that after he filed his complaint, the Military Police never contacted him again. The Air Force spokesman returned the wallet and cell phone that had been taken from him during the assault, but not his camera or press card. Poerba said the attack had inflicted lingering physical and psychological trauma:

Where is the trial? Are we talking about impunity here? Are we talking about covering up here? I am still not able to work. I am still getting alternative medical treatment with herbs and massages [for pain in my ribs and my head]. I began to do this a month after I left the hospital. I was not only bruised but also suffered nerve damage [and other injuries] to my head, both arms and hip. My wife found blood on my pillow on the third day of my hospitalization. I used to be an active journalist, but now I have to stay home. That’s not to mention the psychological problems. Sometimes I sob at night when seeing my children sleeping.

Sonny Misdianto, Net TV journalist
Assaulted by military personnel in Madiun, October 2, 2016

On October 2, 2016, at about 2 p.m., Sonny Misdianto was riding his motorcycle in downtown Madiun when he noticed that the Teratai martial arts carnival had just ended and that participants and spectators were leaving the area. Because it was raining, he stopped near a row of stores, waiting for the rain to stop.

Young martial arts enthusiasts were loudly revving their motorcycles and doing wheelies down the street. As Misdianto watched, one of those motorcycles suddenly went through a red light at the intersection and hit a woman. Misdianto immediately grabbed his camera and began filming the scene of the accident.

Moments later, about 20 uniformed members of the Madiun-based 501st Raider Battalion of Kostrad, an elite strategic reserve command unit, ran toward the intersection. Misdianto said that he thought these soldiers intended to help the woman. Instead, the soldiers, who were bearing nunchuck martial arts weapons and plastic pipes filled with sand, assaulted the martial arts enthusiasts who had gathered at the scene of the accident to try to help the injured woman. Misdianto said a soldier suddenly came up to him and asked, “Hey, why are you recording?”

I said, “I’m a journalist.” I showed him my press card around my neck. He said, “Why are you recording? You’re wrong. You have no right to record. Stupid journalist!”

Misdianto said one of the soldiers grabbed him and they forced him into a nearby store, away from the intersection where the soldiers were still assaulting the martial arts enthusiasts. The soldiers demanded that Misdianto delete the files on his video camera. He said that when he refused, they kept insisting, punching and kicking him. One soldier hit Misdianto’s head with his nunchucks, causing him to momentarily lose consciousness. Another hit him on his right cheek. A third kicked him in the back. They forced him to open his camera and took out its memory card. They destroyed the memory card and deliberately broke his camera.

A Military Police officer who was passing by rescued Misdianto from his attackers and took him by motorcycle to Madiun’s Army Military Police Command. There, the deputy military commander demanded that Misdianto delete all photos from his phone. Misdianto said he thought he did not have any other option so he deleted the photos.

While he was there, Misdianto reported the attack to his Net TV supervisors, who decided to file criminal charges against the 501st Raider Battalion. While Misdianto was at the Military Police office, journalists from other media outlets took pictures of his injuries and interviewed him. The Military Police officers, visibly concerned about the media exposure, ushered Misdianto into a separate room and barred journalists from entering.

At 5 p.m. a senior police officer arrived at the Military Police office and asked Misdianto to go with him into his car. Misdianto said:

I told him that I had injuries. My head was spinning, I had bruises all over my body. He brought me to the emergency unit at the Madiun police precinct in which I got my first medical treatment. The [officer] later wanted to talk to me privately. He said, “Please don’t go ahead [with the criminal charges].”

Misdianto said the officer tried to give him an envelope that he believed had money inside, but declined. He said he wanted prosecution of the case to continue.

Misdianto said a military officer from the 501st Raider Battalion visited him later at his home, saying he wanted to resolve the case via an informal restitution process rather than by criminal charges. He urged Misdianto not to press charges against his unit, telling him, “We have known each other for a long time.”

While Misdianto spoke with the military officer, he got a phone call from his father, who lives a two-hour drive away in the town of Ponorogo. His father told him that two soldiers had just visited his home and asked him to show them his official identification documents and about his relationship with Misdianto. Misdianto asked the officer at his home why the military in Ponorogo to gone to visit his father. The officer denied it was his initiative, but admitted the Military Police  was responsible. Later that evening, Military Police came to Misdianto’s home and seized his video camera, ostensibly as evidence.

At about 8 p.m., Misdianto and a colleague went to the Madiun police precinct and filed a criminal complaint about his attack. But the police told Misdianto that civilian police had no jurisdiction over the matter and referred him to the Military Police. Misdianto and his colleague returned to the Military Police office and filed a complaint over the objections of the officers, who wanted to resolve the case informally. The next day Misdianto was required to return to the office and re-file his complaint after being told there had been a “technical error” in his first complaint.

Later that day, Misdianto’s relatives told him that men with military-style crewcuts passed by his house, while other men suddenly appeared in a rice field behind his house. For the rest of the week, military officers phoned him four or five times a day, pressing him to drop criminal charges and accept an informal restitution process. The military also called his Net TV supervisors in Surabaya and Jakarta to make the same request.

Net TV transferred Misdianto to Surabaya for several days to avoid the pressure of the criminal case in Madiun. During that time, his wife in Madiun kept reporting the presence of mysterious men with crewcuts around their house. She said the men tried to give the appearance of being joggers, scrap metal scavengers or local farmers, but that she felt she was under surveillance, he said.

Over a 10-day period, Misdianto and his family received more than 100 calls from various military officers. This pressure ultimately induced Misdianto to drop criminal charges against his attackers and accept the informal restitution process.

A week later, from Surabaya, Misdianto went with a Net TV executive to meet with a two-star general at the Jakarta headquarters of Kostrad. Misdianto sought compensation for his broken camera, military discipline against his attackers, and a guarantee from the Kostrad central command that the military would respect media freedom. He also demanded that the military cease harassing his wife and family.

He stayed only two days in Jakarta. Back in Madiun, Misdianto went to the Military Police office and withdrew his criminal complaint. The Military Police returned his broken camera, but provided none of the promised compensation for its repair. Almost immediately, the mysterious men with crewcuts disappeared from around his house. Misdianto said his assault taught him that “press freedom in Indonesia is only an empty message.”

Redress and Accountability Mechanisms

Indonesian authorities have obligations under international human rights law to provide redress and accountability when the rights of journalists and media organizations are violated.

International human rights law, notably article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, upholds the rights to freedom of expression and the media. It also places limits on those freedoms: legal restrictions may be imposed to protect the rights and reputations of others, namely through civil defamation laws, so long as the penalties are proportionate to the harm caused. However, editors and publishers should be held responsible for what they publish by their readers and listeners, communities, and independent journalist associations – not by the government.

Indonesian law also requires journalists who are targets of physical assault to report such incidents to the National Police Profession and Security Division if the perpetrator is a police officer, or to the Military Police if the perpetrator is a soldier. The government human rights commission, Komnas-HAM, has found that police investigations of incidents of violence against journalists often stall “because of technicalities or as a result of social or political pressure.”

The Alliance of Independent Journalists and the LBH Pers, a nongovernmental legal aid organization that specializes in media freedom issues, attribute the increase of attacks on journalists to the cumulative impact of Indonesia’s chronic problems of security force impunity as well as the reluctance of media companies to support journalists who are targets of such abuse. LBH Pers said that many journalists who are victims of violence tend to accept police or military offers of informal financial compensation so they can repair or replace damaged or destroyed cameras and mobile phones. The Makassar-based Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom of Expression partly attributes the impunity for attacks on journalists to their lack of knowledge of both their rights and legal processes for accountability. 

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