Yudhoyono vows not to muzzle media

Indonesian President tries to allay fears over a Bill that will make it a crime to offend leaders.

PRESIDENT Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has promised not to muzzle the media, fending off criticism over a new Bill that seeks to curb press freedom and has raised fears of a return to Suharto-era repression.

‘The government I am leading has no intention at all to limit or curb the freedom of the media,’ he told senior editors recently, maintaining that press freedom is important in a democracy.

His remarks followed widespread criticism by local reporters of a proposed Bill that would make it a crime to offend top leaders or undermine Indonesia’s guiding doctrines.

Harsh penalties proposed for journalists include prison terms of up to 15 years and a maximum fine of 3 billion rupiah (S$530,000). Jakarta said it wanted to encourage more responsible reporting and bring discipline to the chaotic media scene.

The Bill seeks to make it a crime to disseminate any information undermining the state doctrine of Pancasila – a set of vague principles seeking to unite Indonesia’s diverse population of 220 million.

Reporters could also face punishment for offending the President, Vice-President, religious groups and state institutions, and for inciting people to rise up against a legitimate administration.

Presidential spokesman Andi Mallarangeng said the draft legislation drawn up during the Megawati regime had ‘fallen on the laps’ of Dr Yudhoyono when he took over power on Oct 20.

‘Nothing has been finalised,’ he said. ‘So all this criticism is rather premature. There is nothing to suggest that we are turning the clock back.’ He said there was clear evidence that Dr Yudhoyono would not take as tough a stance as his predecessor.

In Riau, the President said reporters would always be given the ‘right of reply’ and would not be prosecuted using criminal law – as was the case in the past administration.

He said a move to create a new Ministry of Information and Communication – which was also criticised – was aimed at ‘improving the flow of public information’. ‘It is not going to be this Big Brother superstructure that will control the media,’ he told The Straits Times.

But critics are not convinced.

Political observer Arbi Sanit of the University of Indonesia noted: ‘The President is playing two cards. On the one hand, he is trying to show that he is a democrat.

‘On the other, he will be attempting to rein in the local media with this new ministry so that his administration will not have to suffer mindless press criticism.’

Indeed, sources said Dr Yudhoyono was upset with several media reports for criticising his performance during his first 100 days in power.

While championing press freedom when he met journalists in Pekan Baru, Dr Yudhoyono also warned them to stick to the facts or risk a ‘backlash’ against inaccurate reporting.

Mr Arbi said: ‘That seems to be a veiled threat. It reflects concerns that his popularity has taken a dip … But you are not going to see this President come out with a sledgehammer against journalists because he will be careful to present the image of a democrat at home and abroad.’

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