Posted by: mel | April 21, 2009

Indonesia v. Corruption

In a victory for the free press and democracy, the Supreme Court reverses a libel judgment against Time magazine.

Wall Street Journal Asia | 20 April 2009

Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made fighting corruption a cornerstone of his presidency. His efforts just got a boost from the judiciary. This is good news for the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy.

In a landmark ruling last week, Indonesia’s Supreme Court reversed a libel judgment won by the late strongman Suharto’s family against Time Inc. Asia in 2007. The case centered on Time’s 1999 cover story, “Suharto Inc.,” which examined how the family allegedly used political influence to extract wealth from public- and private-sector enterprises. On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled Time’s reporting was in the public interest. The full text of the judgment isn’t yet available.

The ruling rights a clear wrong. The Suhartos did not dispute the bulk of Time’s article. Instead,Suharto v. Time Inc. Asia focused on relatively trivial points such as the magazine’s cover illustration. The only serious claims involved Time’s assertions that Suharto had possessed a Swiss bank account and evaded taxation. Time quoted its sources and sought comment from Suharto before publishing the article.

Two courts found in Time’s favor before the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court in 2007 and won a one trillion rupiah ($107 million) judgment. As far as we know, the finding was the largest libel judgment in history. One of the judges, a former general, was appointed to the bench by Suharto and had a clear conflict of interest. The ruling sent a chilling message to Indonesia’s press corps and to foreign investors already wary of Indonesia’s legacy of Suharto-era corruption. Time appealed.

Thursday’s decision, made by a different set of Supreme Court judges, sends the message that libel disputes should be judged according to Indonesia’s Press Law, which accord wide protections for journalists. The ruling may also promote the practice of trying journalists under civil, not criminal law — a position supported by Indonesia’s new Chief Justice, Harifin Tumpa. This is common in other jurisdictions. Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, however, still have criminal libel on the books.

Mr. Yudhoyono’s government has scored some prominent anticorruption victories. In recent years, Indonesian courts have convicted the former CEO of the country’s largest bank, a former central bank governor and several politicians. The father-in-law of Mr. Yudhoyono’s son, a former central bank deputy governor, is currently on trial for alleged graft.

But there is more to be done. By working to expose corruption, the free press is an indispensable pillar of any democracy. Indonesia’s constitution recognizes this, and on Thursday, so did its Supreme Court.

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