On March 27, journalist Nurhadi of news outlet Tempo was assaulted in East Java while investigating a tax bribery case, raising concerns over growing violence against journalists in Indonesia.

According to media reports, the act occurred while Nurhadi attempted to confirm details of a tax collection case from the former director of Inspection of the Directorate General of Taxes at Indonesia’s Finance Ministry, Angin Prayitno Aji. While the incident occurred during a wedding reception, Indonesian press groups said Nurhadi’s attendance at the wedding did not violate journalism ethics. Two police officers, believed to be the former director’s bodyguards, are the main suspects. The case is still under investigation.

The incident is one of the latest attacks against journalists, which have increased sharply since last year in the Southeast Asian country.

In 2020, 84 attacks against journalists were registered in Indonesia, according to the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AIJ), an organization created to defend press freedom in the country. This number is the highest since AJI began collecting data on violence against journalists in 2006.

Press freedom in Indonesia

Media freedom in Indonesia has improved since the fall of Suharto’s New Order in 1998. Since then the government has implemented reforms to protect freedom of expression, such as the Press Law, promulgated in 1999. Despite the progress, independent media and journalists are still facing many challenges.

Regulations that restrict press freedom have been imposed by the government. For example, in 2018, an amendment that banned public criticism of the government was passed in the Parliament. The law, also known as MD3, allows for the Parliament’s council to prosecute organizations or citizens that were deemed to disrespect the institution or its members.

“Especially when writing about corruption in the government, journalists and editors who are in charge of the media are targeted and sought for legal wrongdoing,” Jefri Sutiono, general director of Rajawali Siber, a movement of journalists dedicated to ending extreme poverty in Indonesia, told IPI.

Likewise, in 2016 the government amended the 2008 Law on Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE). Defamation and libel provisions in the article have been used to suppress critical voices.

“Based on reports from the Legal Aid Institute for the Press, in 2020 there were 10 cases of criminalization against journalists”, AJI Secretary-General Ika Ningtyas told IPI. “In five of these cases, authorities used the provisions of Article 27 paragraph three of the ITE Law concerning insult and/or defamation, and the other three cases used Article 28 paragraph two of the ITE Law about hate speech.”

The penalty for violating the ITE law includes fines of up to RP 750 million (approximately 430 euros) and a maximum sentence of six years. According to Ningtyas, two journalists have been jailed so far under this law.

Additionally, many journalists are at risk of being attacked. According to data from AJI, in 2020, the capital Jakarta with 17 cases had the greatest number of incidences of violence against journalists, followed by Malang with 15 cases, Surabaya 7, Samarinda 5, and Palu, Gorontalo, Lampung each with 4 cases.

With regard to the types of attacks faced by journalists, most cases involved intimidation (25 cases) and physical violence (17 cases). The remaining cases included vandalism confiscation of tools or data from coverage. Meanwhile, in terms of perpetrators, the police rank first with 58 cases, followed by nine cases involving unidentified individuals, and seven cases involving the general public.

However, it is difficult to estimate the number of attacks against journalists in the field due to a lack of human resources to verify the cases, Ningtyas added.

Other recent attacks

In the first quarter of 2021, press freedom violations have continued.

On January 31, the mayor of Batam, a city located on an island south of Singapore, ordered a journalist to turn off a live stream during a press conference on the destruction of unused ID cards and had his phone taken away by the official staff.

A similar case occurred on April 14 when two journalists were expelled from City Hall in Medan, the capital of Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, while they waited to interview the mayor.

Additionally, a physical attack against a journalist in Bekasi, a city within Jakarta’s metropolitan area, was registered on March 16. The assault was carried out by two individuals who were being interviewed by the reporter for an investigation about corruption in land ownership certificates. The journalist suffered several injuries.

In another recent instance in April, the contact information of two journalists was tracked and exposed on social media. The incidence was carried out by two Instagram users after the journalists published a story on a civil disturbance outside the mayor’s residence. As a result, both reporters became victims of online harassment.

Moreover, intimidation by authorities continues to be a pressing issue for independent journalists. According to Ningtyas, a survey conducted by civil institutions found that out of 125 journalists surveyed, 26% had received reprimands or unofficial warnings from the government.

Media freedom during COVID-19

The pandemic has severely affected media and press freedom in the country, particularly media businesses.

“Based on data from the Central Press Company Union (SPS) which surveyed 434 mass media groups, it was found that 71 percent of the print media companies experienced a decrease in turnover”, Ningtyas told IPI. “Since January-April 2020, print media has decreased in turnover by more than 40 percent.”

The decrease in revenue has also forced media houses to cut salaries or employee positions.

“We are now reducing or not employing many field journalists”, Sutiono said. “This is the way we are now able to exist and keep reporting as much as we can while avoiding bankruptcy”.

At least 50 percent of mass media companies cut employee salaries by 20 to 30 percent. Also, about 45 percent of print media companies took the option of laying off employees without giving a salary and at least one company has laid off 25 to 100 employees, Ningtyas said

In light of this situation, the government stepped in to provide economic support to the media and cooperate with them to disseminate information regarding the handling of COVID-19. However, the financial aid presents challenges.

This funding on the one hand helps the media business, but on the other hand can affect the independence”, Ningtyas explained.

Looking ahead

Although the current landscape for press and media freedom looks grim, independent journalists continue demanding their rights and carrying out their work.

To achieve this, they have implemented strategies that include urging the government to revise the ITE law and other regulations, strengthening their collaboration with civil society, and advocating for their rights to press freedom.

At the same time, the international support from other media and watchdog organizations has been crucial to strengthening the journalistic work of independent media, Ningtyas said.

“The outlook for media freedom in the country still looks pessimistic”, Ningtyas added. “Several regulations are still hindering the work even though Indonesia has a Press Law. But we still have to fight together with the civil society to get back to complete freedom.”