Editor's Trial Tests Indonesian Freedoms
Aug. 05, 2003
JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ A judge in a crowded, fan-cooled courtroom grills a government witness in the trial of Indonesia's boldest editor, whose headlines compared President Megawati Sukarnoputri to a cannibal and a leech.
``Does this show proper manners? Is this polite?'' the judge asks, holding up a banner headline that reads, ``Mega's Mouth Reeks of Fuel.''
Supratman _ the 34-year-old editor of the tabloid-style workingman's paper Rakyat Merdeka _ faces a six-year jail term on criminal charges of ``insulting'' the president under an old Dutch colonial law.
In the five years since the fall of former dictator Suharto, Indonesia's media has earned a reputation as one of Asia's most freewheeling. Supratman's trial is a likely indication that it's becoming just a bit too free for Megawati's tastes _ despite her background as a pro-democracy leader during the dictatorship.
``I'm ready to go to jail,'' Supratman told The Associated Press inside the bustling newsroom of the paper, which in Indonesian language means Free People. ``This is a political trial.''
Supratman is quick to point out, too that the law used against him was once used to pursue against Megawati's own father Sukarno, Indonesia's first president.
``Imagine the irony!'' Supratman says. ``She ought to remember that her father was taken to court with the same law.''
At a recent hearing, a language expert from the Education Ministry, testifying for the prosecution, told the court that the president had indeed been insulted. But lawyers for Supratman _ who like many Indonesians uses a single name _ argued that there's nothing personal about criticizing a public figure.
Supratman is on trial for four headlines: one that called Megawati a leech, one that said she's more vicious than a well-known Javanese cannibal, one calling her a ``regent,'' which in local parlance implies that she's too high to mix with common folk, and one saying her mouth reeks of oil.
``Why oil?'' asked the leader of a three-judge panel at the recent hearing, holding up the headline as one of the judges sitting beside him nodded off to sleep. ``Why didn't they say her breath smells of potatoes or rotten fruit?''
The four headlines appeared earlier this year when Megawati's government announced plans to raise prices for fuel, electricity and basic foodstuffs. The fuel reference appears to have been especially sensitive, considering that Megawati and her husband are gas station owners.
Supratman insists that his headlines merely reflected what people were thinking at the time _ when protests against the Megawati government were taking place almost everyday. His lawyers point out that the headlines were in fact quotes by protesters.
``We wanted to capture the atmosphere of the moment _ the complaints, the desperation of the people,'' Supratman said.
The soft-spoken editor, father of a three-year-old boy, said he and his wife decided to postpone having a second child until they know the trial's outcome.
Supratman fears that the government will try to make him an example so that other journalists will think twice before publishing similar fare. Indonesian prisons are notoriously brutal, and six years in one could serve as a mighty deterrent.
The editor's lawyers say laws ensuring press freedom are supposed to take precedence over the outdated law against insulting the president.
That people in a democracy shouldn't be jailed for criticizing their leaders is a notion that has yet to fully take root in Indonesia.
A Muslim activist was recently jailed for five months after holding up a poster of Megawati, a black strip superimposed over her eyes, with a caption reading, ``Wanted by the people.''
Several other protesters have also been jailed for criticizing the president.
Democracy has brought freedoms unheard of during Suharto's rule, yet the common perception is that corruption and elitism keep democracy's benefits out of the hands of ordinary citizens in the world's fourth most populous country.
Megawati came to power on a platform of reform, but many Indonesians believe she's failed to deliver.
Supratman said that criticism of Megawati's performance constitutes the country's best hope of getting her government on track.
``We are doing the right thing and we hope that Megawati understands why we are doing it,'' Supratman said.