Wednesday, September 26, 2007

TIME ruling a setback for democracy in Indonesia


By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA—Sometimes when things appear to be better, they are actually worse. This is certainly the case with press freedom in Indonesia.

As the largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia’s democratic transformation since 1998—when strongman Suharto was toppled—has been an exemplary example for the world.

In addition to having free elections and a government they select, Indonesians today practice a variety of democratic rights, including demonstrating—something that would put them in jail or could cost them their lives under the old regime.

Indeed, Indonesia has thus far shown a steady democratic transition, despite resistance from some minor groups—mostly hard-line Muslim organizations.

For instance, in 2002, the Indonesian Parliament rejected a motion to institute sharia, or Islamic Laws, across Indonesia.

What is more, in July this year, the Constitutional Court scrapped Articles 154 and 155 from Indonesia’s Criminal Code and banned the government from imprisoning anyone whose expression of thoughts and ideas was considered hostile or subversive towards the state.

Media and civil society organizations, among others, gladly welcomed this decision and considered it another step forward for democracy in Indonesia.

But, alas, only a month later, Indonesia’s Supreme Court did something that, de facto, undoes what the Constitutional Court did. On 30 August, the Supreme Court ordered Time magazine to pay former president Suharto Rp. 1 trillion (US$ 106 million).

The ruling resulted from a suit filed by Suharto against the US magazine over an article in which it said that he had stashed a massive amount of his wealth abroad.

In an article titled “Suharto Inc.: The Family Firm”, published in May 1990, Time wrote that it “has learned that $9 billion of Suharto’s money was transferred from Switzerland to a nominee bank account in Austria”.

For someone who does not know much about Indonesia, this article might have brought some startling facts. But for those who do, it is hardly any news.

During the 32 years when he was in power, Suharto himself, his children, and cronies are said to have accumulated trillions dollars worth of personal wealth and kept it both here in Indonesia and overseas.

But where they have kept their monies is not the issue. Rather, it is that their monies have come from what Indonesians call KKN, or corruption, collusion, and nepotism.

As a matter of fact, there have been efforts to try Suharto for corruption, but so far, they have been unsuccessful.

Back in 2000, Suharto was indicted for alleged corruption, but judges dismissed a US$600m corruption case on the grounds of his ill health. Last August, the Office of Attorney General dropped Suharto’s corruption charges altogether on the ground that his poor health did not allow him to stand trial.

"Our conclusion, after hearing the statement from the doctors, is that Suharto's condition is getting worse [sic],” said former attorney general Rahman Saleh.

While it remains to be seen if Suharto will ever be tried for corruption, the Time ruling has several negative impacts.

For one thing, it paints a wrong picture of Indonesia abroad as a nation that indulges corruption.

Together with the decision last year to drop Suharto’s corruption charges, the Time ruling sends a message to the world that he is, indeed, above the law.

Interestingly enough, the Time ruling came out just two weeks before the United Nations and the World Bank issued a joint report on the so-called Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative. In the report, Suharto is mentioned as one of the leaders who have misappropriated national assets in developing countries.

What’s more, the Time ruling illustrates the self-contradiction in the Indonesian government. On the one hand, the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration prides itself on fighting corruption. But on the other hand, Indonesian courts continue to make such counterproductive decisions as the Time ruling.

In other words, how can corrupters be brought to justice if the media, Indonesian and foreign alike, are scared of paying millions worth of defamation for filing stories about their corruption?

But most importantly, the Time ruling is a setback for democracy in Indonesia. In addition to freedom of speech, a free press is a sign of a healthy democracy.

To be sure, the media have found a lot more freedom in Indonesia now than they ever did under the old regime.

The Time ruling, however, undermines the very democratic progress that Indonesia has made so far.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist and editor of two books on Indonesia. His writing can be read at www.thangthecolumnist.blogspot.com.

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7:57 PM  

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