Indonesia: Government crackdown on media

Thursday, October 10, 1996


(Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, 10 October 1996) On July 27 and 28, the Indonesian government sent troops to disperse supporters of opposition leader Megawati Soekarnoputri from the headquarters of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) in Jakarta. In the rioting that followed, people were killed. The Indonesian government says three, but human rights watchdogs say as many as 75 are missing. Journalists attempting to cover the riots were attacked by the troops and censored by government officials. But their attempts to stifle the press have failed, and daily we receive updates on the struggle from a partner in Indonesia. Here in Canada, the CCPJ has joined a coalition to fight for change in Canada's policy in dealing with Indonesia.

We will file updates, both on the activities of the Indonesia Solidarity Network, and the press freedom struggle in Indonesia. The following is a letter from CCPJ to Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy on behalf of the Indonesia Solidarity Network:

September 9, 1996

The Hon. Lloyd Axworthy, P.C., M.P.
Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6 CANADA

Fax: +1 613 996 3443

Dear Sir,

I am writing on behalf of the newly formed Indonesia Solidarity Network to request a meeting with you to discuss the alarming human rights and freedom of expression violations occurring in Indonesia. Our Network includes the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, the Canadian Auto Workers, the Canada-Asia Working Group, and the United Church Division of World Outreach.

In 1965 -- the "Year of Living Dangerously" -- General Suharto swept to power in Indonesia, in a bloody coup that claimed over half a million lives. He has ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for the last thirty-one years. But on July 27 this year, his attempt to shut down an opposition political party led to an unprecedented outburst of popular anger. The Indonesian government has openly admitted to only three deaths, but some government representatives have privately said that they believe some 75 were killed that day. Some human rights organisations believe the total was even higher.

An official monitoring group lists the death toll at five, with 149 injured and 74 missing. Many others are now in prison and face being blamed for the rioting. Inciting riots is classified as a subversive act, which may carry the maximum penalty of death.

Suharto has used the riots to crack down on all forms of peaceful dissent. In recent weeks:

* Almost one hundred people have been arrested and detained for nonviolent political activity. Many have been refused access to lawyers or visits from their family. One family member who was permitted to see his detained relative said that burns and scars from torture were clearly evident;
* House to house searches and raids on university campuses continue even now;
* The head of Indonesia's largest independent trade union, Mochtar Pakpahan, is in prison awaiting a possible death penalty, although the government cannot name a single criminal act he may have committed;
* Other trade union organisers are being held in isolation cells;
* There is no broadcast or print outlet for political expression in Indonesia. The media in Indonesia is muzzled by fear of bannings and imprisonment. In this light the recent uprisings were inevitable. But even this momentous event has been hidden from the world by a government that will control all media in their country at any cost. We have reports of several violations of press freedom surrounding coverage of the July 27 government seizure of the PDI headquarters.

First of all, a blockade prevented journalists from covering the seizure. According to local sources, soldiers seized video footage belonging to Associated Press Television and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In addition, two local journalists covering the crackdown sustained beatings. And since June, senior Indonesian army officers have delivered explicit warnings to the local press about reporting on the conflict with Megawati loyalists. Lt. Gen. Syarwan Hamid, the head of the socio-political section of the military general staff, summoned Jakarta-based editors and bureau chiefs to a meeting on 28 July, where he advised them to support the government's stance.

According to local sources, warnings have been issued to two leading dailies -- Kompas and Merdeka -- for their critical coverage of the crackdown.

It now appears that Indonesia's government has no intention of revoking a decree which has allowed it to close down several publications in the past, often for vague reasons. Harmoko, the Information Minister, was quoted recently as saying the decree was "by itself a regulation, with a legal existence, and in line with prevailing laws."

Under this decree, a license can be revoked when the government deems that the publication has carried a report that could endanger the unity of the nation or violated other regulations.

The steps taken by the government to restrict coverage by the media of PDI-related events are in clear violation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Those steps should be publicly reversed, and the government should make a public commitment to full and unrestricted coverage and analysis of events relating to the political violence and the events that preceded it.

The Indonesia Solidarity Network believes the Prime Minister should express Canada's condemnation of Suharto's actions in the strongest possible terms by applying diplomatic and trade sanctions against Indonesia.

In closing, I'd like to quote a letter from CCPJ member Tim Knight to you on August 10, 1996 regarding this issue:

We do not know - we cannot know- whether Canada seizing the high moral ground and acting unilaterally against such outlaw and brutal regimes will make any immediate difference.

We do not know - we cannot know - whether Canadian sacrifices for moral principle will bring freedom, or any semblance of freedom, to the oppressed peoples of....Indonesia.

We do not know - we cannot know - whether Canada's economy will benefit or be harmed by doing the right thing.

We know that Canada's reputation for decency, honour and integrity is part of our national soul. We know that such a reputation is without price. We know what the right thing is. We ask that you continue to do the right thing.

We look forward to meeting with you at your earliest convenience to further discuss our concerns.

Yours sincerely,
Wayne Sharpe
Executive Director
Indonesia Solidarity Network

RECOMMENDED ACTION: Send a similar appeal to Lloyd Axworthy.