A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil, Jakarta – Press rights groups and environmentalists have condemned an attempt to disrupt a media discussion on the Tapanuli orangutan and North Sumatra's Batang Toru ecosystem on Thursday, calling it an affront to journalistic freedom and safety.
Unidentified men shouted and tried to shut down a discussion on the impact of the Batang Toru power plant on the surrounding ecosystem and the endemic Tapanuli orangutan at a community-run library Baca di Tebet in South Jakarta, which was hosted by environmental group Satya Bumi.
The tensions continued for several minutes and the organizers tried to have a dialogue with the protesters explaining the context of the discussion but to no avail. Security officers were dispatched to escort the protesters out of the venue and then the discussion resumed.
The Journalism Safety Committee condemned the attempt to disrupt the discussion, saying that journalistic works and discussions should be respected and not be silenced.
"This attempt to shut down a discussion by force clearly violates the right to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly, which is protected in Article 28 of the Constitution. Anyone should have highly respected these rights," Journalism Safety Committee coordinator Erick Tanjung said in a statement on Thursday.
Erick said that the unidentified men trying to disrupt the discussion should be reported to the police and an investigation should take place to ascertain whether their actions on Thursday were spontaneous individual acts or planned ahead, and if so by whom.
The Jakarta chapter of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI Jakarta) and the Legal Aid Institute for the Press (LBH Pers) said that the disruption was not only an affront to democracy but also a violation of laws on the press.
"We urge all parties to respect discussions on journalistic works... any objections to a journalistic work should be done through the right to reply," AJI Jakarta and LBH Pers said in a statement.
The groups highlighted that the right to reply was enshrined in the 1999 Press Law, which is the right for someone to give a response or rebuttal regarding news coverage that concerns them.
Satya Bumi executive director Andi Muttaqien said that he did not expect that there would be such a strong response to the discussion with the disruption attempt, as the organization also tried to invite officials from the Environment and Forestry Ministry and the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry to speak at the event on Thursday but no one from either ministry was able to attend it.
The discussion on Thursday shared a collaborative reporting project by the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ) with several mass media including The Jakarta Post on the controversy surrounding the construction of a hydropower plant in Batang Toru district in South Tapanuli built in the habitat of the endangered Tapanuli orangutan.
It is estimated that there are fewer than 800 Tapanuli orangutans living in the Batang Toru ecosystem, and several studies found that the western part of the Batang Toru block hosts roughly 75 percent of the total population. Part of this land is the area in which the Batang Toru dam is currently being constructed.
Experts have voiced concerns that the dam construction would divide the orangutan habitat, which would lead to fragmentation of their population, heightening their risk of extinction.