INDONESIA: 'Koran Tempo' found guilty of libel

Press freedom, once again, has been dealt another severe blow after the panel of judges at the South Jakarta District Court ruled on Tuesday in favor of businessman Marimutu Sinivasan of the Texmaco group in a defamation suit he filed against Koran Tempo newspaper

The Jakarta Post
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

By M. Taufiqurrahman

Press freedom, once again, has been dealt another severe blow after the panel of judges at the South Jakarta District Court ruled on Tuesday in favor of businessman Marimutu Sinivasan of the Texmaco group in a defamation suit he filed against Koran Tempo newspaper.

The judges found the daily guilty of running libelous articles from January 2003 to April 2003 and ordered it to make an apology in national electronic and printed media for three consecutive days.

The daily was also ordered to withdraw all articles considered defamatory. Should Koran Tempo fail to comply with the ruling, it will be fined Rp 10 million (US$1,176) per day until it does so.

"The articles in question were tendentious, provocative and have tarnished the image of Marimutu Sinivasan as a trusted businessman. The articles went against the religious code, the presumption of innocence principle and decency as stipulated in Article 5 of the Press Law No. 40/1999," presiding judge I Gde Putra Jadnya said in the verdict.

The court, however, turned down the plaintiff's demand for a total of US$51 million in compensation. It said there was no definite connection between the articles and the amount of damages suffered by the Texmaco group.

Lawyers for Koran Tempo will appeal the verdict.

"The ruling shows that the judges just do not have a grasp of what a free press is all about. The court has become a graveyard for press freedom as many journalists have been prosecuted," lawyer Atmajaya Salim said.

Previously, the court sentenced executive editor of Rakyat Merdeka daily, Supratman, to six months in jail for publishing articles that insulted President Megawati Soekarnoputri and its chief editor, Karim Paputungan, to five months in jail for insulting House of Representatives Speaker Akbar Tandjung.

The much-awaited verdict came after a five-month trial since the suit was filed in June 2003. Seven expert witnesses have testified in the trial, including Press Council deputy chairman R.H. Siregar and banking expert Sutan Remy Syahdeni.

The expert witnesses repeatedly said that when running the articles, Koran Tempo had stayed within its role as a social control mechanism to fulfill the public interests.

Sinivasan filed a civil lawsuit against the daily for several articles that were critical of him. He claimed that continuous publication of the articles caused 18 companies under the Texmaco group to suffer from financial losses.

In the articles, Koran Tempo said that Sinivasan, who resigned from his post at Texmaco in October, still owed the government an estimated Rp 26 trillion in bailout funds, which were disbursed in the wake of financial crisis in the late 1990s.

The daily also reported that the businessman had been involved in convoluted and highly suspicious dealings with government officials.

The reports were said to be based on interviews from the daily reporters with Texmaco inside sources and press releases provided by the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency and the Cabinet's Financial Sector Policy Committee.

In a similar defamation suit filed by Sinivasan, the Central Jakarta District Court had ruled on Nov. 27 in favor of Tempo magazine. Judges decided that the defamation suit against the magazine was invalid and stated that Sinivasan and Texmaco were trying to obstruct press freedom.

The court, however, approved the out-of-the-court settlement between Sinivasan and Kompas cofounder Jakob Oetama and chief editor Soeryopratomo in a defamation civil suit filed by the businessman.

In the jointly-signed letter of agreement, Sinivasan had agreed on Nov. 14 to unconditionally terminate the civil suit against the daily.