HUMAN Rights Watch (HRW) has urged Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to take decisive action to protect journalists ahead of Jakarta hosting World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
While acknowledging “considerable gains” in media freedom in the country since the fall of Suharto’s New Order military dictatorship in 1998, HRW this week urged Jokowi’s administration to crack down on abuses of press freedom by state security forces.
Back in March, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) announced its decision for Jakarta to host World Press Freedom Day 2017.
“World Press Freedom Day should be a time to celebrate the role of journalists in society, but in Indonesia, the focus too often is on their fears,” HRW deputy Asia director Phelim Kine said.
“The Indonesian government should reverse the dangerous deterioration of press freedom in the country and prosecute security force personnel who physically assault journalists.”
— Andreas Harsono (@andreasharsono) April 26, 2017
The theme of World Press Freedom Day this year is “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s Role in Advancing Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies”.
Unesco will run events in partnership with the Indonesian Press Council and government on journalists’ safety, countering violent extremism, press freedom in Southeast Asia and other topics.
Moreover, the UN agency will host a roundtable on the feasibility of a mechanism to promote and protect freedom of expression in the region – with proposed solutions including a dedicated Special Rapporteur or independent commission.
During the era of democracy, Indonesia’s media landscape has expanded exponentially, with more than 100,000 reporters working for 1,000 newspapers, 2,000 radio stations and hundreds of television networks across the vast archipelago.
Indonesia’s most popular English-language daily The Jakarta Post this week celebrated its 34th anniversary.
— The Jakarta Post (@jakpost) April 25, 2017
Nevertheless, the safety of journalists in Indonesia remains a major concern. The newly-released World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders ranks Indonesia at 124 out of 180 countries – below Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and neighbouring East Timor.
When Jokowi was elected in 2014, activists had hoped his administration would drive improvements in the protection of human rights, but had expressed disappointment with progress, including regarding the government’s continued use of the death penalty.
Indonesian non-profit Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) has documented some 577 examples of violence against journalists since 2008. Last year saw a sharp rise in incidents, with 78 assaults on journalists compared with 42 in 2015.
Journalists have seen significant threats to their safety while reporting on the Aksi Bela Islam movement against Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama after his allegedly blasphemous comments last September.
During a mass rally in the capital last November, for example, reporters were verbally and physically abused by protestors, with one TV crew being expelled from Istiqlal Mosque for supposedly biased reporting.
But HRW says attacks are more common in smaller cities and regional areas than in Jakarta, where journalists are more aware of their rights and supported by stronger professional organisations.
The NGO’s research has found an “atmosphere of fear and self-censorship in many newsrooms due to abuses and threats by security forces and local authorities that go unpunished.”
“The Indonesian government has an obligation to address the security threats to journalists so that they don’t risk physical violence for doing their jobs,” Kine said.
“World Press Freedom Day observances in Jakarta will be a cynical public relations exercise unless the Indonesian government, with Unesco’s help, puts media freedom at the top of the agenda.”