Trail by the Press

From: “Trial by the Press”: An Examination of Journalism, Ethics, and Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia. Janet Steele
The International Journal of Press/Politics

In November 2006, Metta Dharmasaputra, a reporter at Tempo magazine, received a phone call from Vincentius Amin Sutanto, the group financial comptroller for the palm-oil producer Asian Agri. Vincentius was on the run, as it had been discovered that he, his younger brother, and a friend had embezzled US$3.1 million in company funds.

At first, Vincentius had tried to negotiate with the company for clemency, but to no avail. When this failed, he threatened to expose something even bigger: his role in systematic tax fraud. Vincentius had inside knowledge of tax evasion at Asian Agri amounting to Rp 1.1 trillion (US$114 million). His employer, Asian Agri, was the second largest company in the Raja Garuda Mas Group belonging to businessman Sukanto Tanoto. Sukanto, a crony of former President Soeharto, was named Indonesia’s wealthiest man in 2006 by Forbes magazine, with an estimated wealth of US$2.8 billion.
With the blessings of Tempo, Metta flew to Singapore, where the accountant was hiding from private detectives who had been hired by the company. After obtaining documentation of price transfers and expenditure markups, and confirming Vincentius’s story with attorneys for Asian Agri, Tempo published its report in the January 15–21, 2007 edition.13 The company immediately sued Tempo for defamation under the Criminal Code.14 In what were widely considered to be personal attacks on the journalist, Metta’s phone and e-mail communications were tapped, and printouts of his text messages from March to July 2007 were illegally disseminated.

Meanwhile, deciding that the best course of action was to turn himself into the police, Vincentius reported the tax manipulation to the KPK (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi) or Corruption Eradication Commission. He was ultimately sentenced to eleven years in prison for his part in the tax fraud. Metta, who feared for his source’s safety, decided to help Vincentius. Perhaps foolishly, he sought assistance for the former comptroller by appealing to a number of business acquaintances. The only one who responded was Edwin Soeryadjaya, a business rival of Sukanto.
In the following weeks, Metta and Tempo’s chief editor Toriq Hadad were told that Asian Agri had personal information about them and their families. Darmin Nasution, the director-general of taxation, who was investigating Asian Agri, reported similar threats.
Meanwhile, the company continued its attempt to discredit Tempo magazine for its investigative report. A series of seminars with dubious sponsorship was held in Jakarta hotels. An “academic” study on “Content, Framing, and Discourse Analysis”—conducted at an institute funded by Asian Agri—was completed by faculty at the University of Gadja Mada and used to prove that Tempo’s story was tendentious and an example of “trial by the press” (Jurusan Ilmu Komunikasi 2007). Discussion of the case on journalism e-mail lists was heated and often personal.
On September 9, 2009, a panel of judges at the Central Jakarta District Court decided in favor of Asian Agri in its lawsuit against Tempo magazine. Ruling that Tempo magazine had indeed defamed Asian Agri, the judges called the Tempo report “malicious and unbalanced,” and described it as “trial by the press.” An editorial in the English-language daily The Jakarta Post did not comment on the content of the Tempo story but made crystal clear its view of the verdict:
We stand together with all echelons of civil society in expressing regret over the verdict, which from the beginning was marred by inappropriate use of the law. The court’s failure to judge the case under the 1999 Press Law created a faulty pretense under which the facts and circumstances of the case could not be fully appreciated. Perhaps the single greatest struggle of the Indonesian media since the fall of the Soeharto government has been the recognition of a free press under the jurisdiction of a special law as defined in Law No. 40/1999 on the Press. Failure to use this law amounts to criminalizing the press irrespective of the grievance brought by Asian Agri against Tempo.16
Tempo was ordered to pay Rp 50 million (US$5,200) in damages and to publish apologies in Tempo newspaper, Tempo magazine, and Kompas, Indonesia’s newspaper of record. Tempo refused and appealed the decision. The Australian newspaper quoted chief editor Toriq Hadad as saying that the decision suggested the judges did not understand the work of journalists. The magazine’s report had been in the public interest, Toriq said, “We have no issue personally with Sukanto . . . but if this (ruling) is so, how are journalists supposed to do their jobs?”
A year later, on July 27, 2009, the Jakarta High Court accepted Tempo’s request for an appeal and revoked the verdict of the lower court. Asian Agri did not oppose the decision, which became final. As Metta later explained,
They changed their strategy. It was all public relations. [Asian Agri was] conscious that with these harsh methods, tapping my phone, hurting me, suing Tempo—in fact they were making the fire even bigger. There were demonstrations; it was hurting their business. It was hard for them to sell bonds overseas. So there were changes. Sukanto stepped down from his business job and set up a foundation, the Tanoto Foundation, and the strategy changed.
At a subsequent trial of some of the suspects from Asian Agri, it was alleged by the prosecutor that “the actions of the accused resulted in losses to state revenue amounting to Rp 1.25 trillion (US$130 million).”
Nearly two years earlier, on September 21, 2007, the ethics council of the AJI had conducted its own investigation of Tempo’s report. The council’s decision was read by Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, the first chair of the Press Council in the post-Soeharto reform era. Supporting Tempo’s investigation, the council found that the story met standards of journalistic professionalism and the code of ethics, calling it “factual, objective, and balanced.”20 Why, then, was there any support at all for the idea that Tempo was guilty of “trial by the press”?



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