Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate release of Muhammad Asrul, a journalist in central Indonesia's South Sulawesi province who has been sentenced to three months in prison in a defamation case which, under Indonesian law, should have been treated as a civil matter. The prosecution must drop the case and let him be acquitted on appeal, RSF says.
A reporter for the Berita News website who investigated alleged local corruption, Muhammad Asrul was convicted on 23 November by a court in the city of Palopo of criminal defamation under section 27.3 of the "Informasi dan Transaksi Elektronik" Law (Electronic Information and Transactions Law) – usually referred to as the "ITE Law."
He was convicted in connection with a three-part story in May 2019 about alleged embezzlement by local officials in three building projects – repairs to a hydro-electric dam, the revitalisation of the Palopo Pancasila industrial zone and construction of a bypass west of the city.
Acquittal on appeal
The complaint was brought by the Palopo mayor's son, Farid Kisam Judas, who was named in the articles. He filed criminal charges on 17 December 2019 accusing Asrul of defamation and inciting hatred. The police arrested Asrul six weeks later, on 29 January 2020, without allowing him access to a lawyer, and he was held for 36 days, until Indonesia's Press Council, known as the "Dewan Pers," intervened and obtained his conditional release. But the local prosecutor's office pursued its criminal investigation.
"Muhammad Asrul's three-month prison sentence violates the basic principles of press freedom as proclaimed in the Republic of Indonesia's fundamental laws," said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk. "We call on the Palopo prosecutor's office to immediately drop their unjustified case against this journalist so that he can be released and acquitted on appeal. He should never have been brought before a criminal court because this kind of complaint should be handled as a civil matter, as the 'Dewan Pers' has maintained."
Civil jurisdiction denied
The Press Council, which issued a statement condemning the Palopo court's decision, can itself act as mediator in a defamation complaint against a journalist by someone named in a media report. The Press Council's competence in this case was nonetheless denied by the prosecutor's office, which claimed that Berita News was not registered as a media outlet when Asrul's articles were published and that this therefore justified treating the matter as a criminal case.
The ITE Law is often used by local officials in Indonesia to harass journalists whose reporting annoys them. Diananta Putra Sumedi, a local website editor in South Kalimantan province, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison under the ITE Law in 2020 for his coverage of the allegedly illegal seizure of land from an indigenous group by a huge palm oil company with accomplices within the local government. The Press Council's role in this case was also overridden by the local prosecutor's office, as RSF reported at the time.
Indonesia is ranked 113th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.