Police officers sit outside a court in Jakarta, Indonesia May 9, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Indonesian journalist Muhammad Yusuf died in police custody earlier this month after being detained for more than five weeks on hate speech and criminal defamation charges.

The police arrested Yusuf in Indonesia’s Kotabaru regency after writing articles critical of the owner of palm oil company PT Multi Saran Agro Mandiri and the company’s alleged illegal land acquisitions. The stories allegedly violated Indonesia’s Law on Information and Electronic Transactions, which punishes defamation disseminated via the internet with up to six years in prison.

The circumstances of Yusuf’s arrest and subsequent death, which authorities have blamed on complications linked to “breathing difficulties and chest pain,” have prompted the announcement of an investigation by Indonesia’s National Commission for Human Rights.

The commission has good reasons to be suspicious. Members of Yusuf’s family along with Sawit Watch – a nongovernmental organization that monitors palm oil company activities in Indonesia – are blaming his death on medical neglect by the police. Yusuf’s wife, Arvaidah, said that the police ignored her pleas for Yusuf to receive medical care linked to stomach and cardiovascular illnesses and had rejected her requests for Yusuf’s release on medical grounds. Surya Mifta, the chief detective at Kotabaru police department, said he rejected that request because he said Yusuf was “not being cooperative.”

The circumstances of Yusuf’s death underscore the dangers faced by Indonesian journalists. Human Rights Watch has documented the vulnerability of reporters in Indonesia to harassment, intimidation, threats, and assault by Indonesian police and military personnel. Although 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, an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship has developed in many newsrooms due to abuses and threats by state security forces that go unpunished.

The Alliance of Independent Journalists, a nongovernmental media rights advocacy group, has reported that incidents of security forces or government officials assaulting journalists jumped to 66 in 2017 from 40 such cases in 2014.  

Ensuring a thorough, impartial and transparent investigation into Yusuf’s death would go a long way toward demonstrating the Indonesian government’s commitment to protecting the country’s fragile media freedom.