Dark chapter for Indonesia’s press freedom

Reflecting on the journey of the Indonesian press throughout 2020 seems like flipping the pages of a black book. It is fair to consider it as one of the worst post-reformation years for the media in speaking the truth. Amidst the pressures presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, journalists’ freedom to report came under threat. 

The government used the situation to deploy a plethora of repressive acts against journalists. Under the pretext of maintaining peace amid the pancemic, the state “prohibited” media from being hostile against the president or government, even though the government is just anti-criticism.

In the 2020 advocacy logbook of the Alliance of Independent Journalists or AJI Indonesia, there were 84 cases of violence committed against journalists. Most of the cases were committed by police personnel. The statistics far exceed the previous year that logged 53 cases. Violence against journalists last year is deemed the worst of the past decade. 

Acts of violence based on its type include physical attacks, work tool confiscation, and intimidation is no longer considered as a form of criminalization against journalists and press offices. During the age of technology, threats have also developed to digital violence.  AJI Indonesia revealed there are cases of doxxing that personally target journalists up to hacking media websites. 

As one of the independent media often reporting on investigations against the government’s chaotic  system, Tempo fell for these online attacks numerous times. In 2020, the news website Tempo.co was attacked and hacked by unknown people. Tempo also faced doxxing from an anonymous Twitter account that is allegedly affiliated with the government’s ‘buzzer.’ 

Another digital attack against Tempo happened as news reports were published on the Job Creation Law (UU Cipta Kerja) also known as the Omnibus and the corruption of social aid by the Social Affairs Minister who was also a member of the political party in power. This is not the first, nor was it the second, Tempo’s website came under attack. 

Tempo’s website once again received attack recently following a joint investigative report with IndonesiaLeaks on the alleged involvement of Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) leader in getting rid of 75 employees through a civil knowledge test (TWK). Attacks were apparent in Tempo’s social media accounts in Twitter and Instagram. News coordinators also received suspicious WhatsApp messages from unknown contacts prior to publishing the investigation, which can be seen as forms of terror. 

Cyberattacks have become a specter for journalists amidst the digital media development that should guarantee the freedom for journalists towards facts. The role of national media towards social control is often eroded by the agenda of rulers, that often come from the government or government institutions. This is the immense challenge for mass media in digital age disruptions. 

This has not considered the emergence of buzzers in social media that forces journalists to work even harder. Their mass-mobilization to promote government policies that are worthy of criticism shows misguided behavior. The buzzer’s manipulative campaigns that are unoriginal often drive opinions that are against facts. 

Independent media such as Tempo must repeatedly face buzzers that convolute facts that polarize society. It is ironic amidst the age of information transparency, journalistic work gets silenced by buzzers. 

Another alarm for journalists has come in the form of the Information and Electronic Transactions Law (ITE Law). This legal product potentially threatens press freedom and the public’s freedom for expression, which is evident in the Articles that oversee information distribution and transmission or electronic documents that contain slander which is punishable under the law as contempt. 

The law states that intentional spread of information meant to instigate hatred or hostility is punishable with six years of imprisonment and an additional Rp1 billion fine. Clauses such as this one clearly created “rubber laws” as it can be used as a means to fight facts over “discomfort.” There are no clear legal indicators on quantifying a person’s hatred. 

Many journalists were charged under the ITE Law such as local Medanese journalist and activist Ismail Marzuki, who can be considered a victim of the law. A police report was filed against him after being accused of spreading hatred, slander, and hoax by the wife of North Sumatra governor, Nawal Lubis, and Heriza Putra Harahap. Lubis reported Ismail after she felt an article the journalist wrote in Mudanews.com had wrongfully accused her. 

The actual mechanism to resolve a journalistic case should be through the Press Council, which has the authority to determine and oversee the implementation of ethical journalism. This process is bypassed with the weapon called ITE Law as the journalistic and ethical probing are ignored and is directly taken to the legal route. 

This condition shows the convoluted press freedom in Indonesia amidst an age that should be saturated by transparency. International watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) r categorizes Indonesia’s press freedom as poor. In 2020, Indonesia ranked 119th from 180 countries, only a five-position increase compared to the previous year, 124. It ranked 113  in 2021.

Indonesia compares poorly to East Timor, which in 2020 ranked 78th, and Malaysia, which ranked 101 in 2020. RSF views that the Indonesian government has not kept its promise to guarantee the freedom of the press, which was mentioned by President Joko Widodo in one of his state speeches.

These acts of violence against media workers have sparked worries among journalists and its effect on press freedom. Press tasked to deliver facts and uncurl disinformation and misinformation amids the wave of hoaxes is in-turn met with threats. 

Journalists should not be worried about their work as it is protected under Law No.40/1999 where the freedom of the press is guaranteed by the State. It also oversees Articles that prevent national press from censorship, restrictions, and broadcasting bans. Under the same law the national press has the right to seek, obtain, and spread ideas and information that correspond to the code of ethics. 

This dark chapter in the Indonesian press amidst the reformation era reminds us of the condition the media faced under the New Order government led by late-president Soeharto. Press, during a 32-year period, was under authoritarian government control. Instead of allowing media as a balancer, during that era, the journalistic role was designed to be a state funnel while independent media were outright banned. 

Tempo has a lengthy record as an independent media and was also subjected to government disbandments in the past. The first happened in 1982 after the New Order regime considered Tempo Magazine to be too heavily critical against the regime and its political vessels at the time, Golkar Party. The magazine was only permitted to publish again after signing a deal with the Ministry of Information. The second disbandment came in 1994 or just four years before Soeharto was forced to leave office. 

The second incident came after Tempo criticized the government’s purchase of 39 used East German fighter vessels. The report at the time revealed that the prices of the used vessels were 62 times over the actual value. During the second disbandment Tempo filed a lawsuit at the State Administrative Court (PTUN). This caused massive layoffs within Tempo, but managed to publish again after Soeharto resigned. 

Looking back into the dark ages of the press, we surely hope that the media can continue to serve as a democratic balancer for the country by providing enlightening information, which in turn will be able to fend off many threats that want to silence the truth. The government should also support journalism amidst technological development instead of being allergic towards the existence of a press that does not hesitate to criticize.