Reporters fear for lives ahead of Indonesian elections

Journalists face threats, insults and physical assault by political candidates' teams in run-up to June polls
Reporters fear for lives ahead of Indonesian elections

Abdul Manan (left), chairman of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), and AJI secretary-general Revolusi Riza are seen here at a media briefing on April 1. They reminded candidates that journalists' duties are protected by law. (Photo supplied by the Alliance of Independent Journalists)

People working in the Indonesian media have expressed concern about the growing risk to their safety ahead of the June 27 local elections after a spate of cases involving reporters being threatened.

The case has also sparked fears of censorship and the shrinking of press freedom in the country.

On March 29, two journalists were physically assaulted by a politician and his entourage despite having acted within the bounds of the law.

Sam Hatunia, a reporter for a local media outfit called Rakyat Maluku in Ambon, Maluku province was allegedly attacked while photographing Said Assegaf as the incumbent governor and his team met with civil servants.

Enlisting the support of civil servants during gubernatorial campaigning is prohibited in the country.

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Gov. Assegaf, who is seeking another term in office, allegedly ordered his aide to make Hatunia delete the photographs and hand over his smartphone.

Another journalist who was present at the same coffee shop, and who tried to intervene, was reportedly punched in the face.

That was Abdul Kaim Angkotasan, chairman of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) in Ambon.

Journalists nationwide have called for a thorough police investigation and the AJI has formed a legal team to oversee the case.

In some cities, groups have been holding rallies to show support for their peers.

"If this case is not dealt with immediately and thoroughly, similar cases will follow. Candidates who feel threatened by the presence of journalists will act in much the same way," said Abdul.

"The competition for power is heating up and the risk that journalists will face more intimidation is high," he told ucanews.com on April 4.

He said Indonesian law guarantees the press is free to cover and publicize the actions of incumbent and aspiring political leaders.

"Taking a photograph of a public official — or candidate — in a public place is a journalist's legally protected right," he said.

Any attempt to block this can result in the violator being jailed for up to two years, according to the constitution, he added.

Data provided by AJI Indonesia shows there were 60 cases of violence or intimidation against journalists last year. Most involved physical assaults, followed by threats of being expelled or banned from covering future political events.

The number was down from 81 in 2016, the second-highest number recorded over the last decade.

"We lend our full support to journalists and urge them not to be afraid of any bullying attempts while they perform their duties, including from candidates and their supporters," said Revolusi Riza, secretary-general of the AJI.

Muhamad Roem Ohoirat, a police spokesman for Maluku, vowed the case would be thoroughly probed.

"We have questioned almost 10 witnesses," he told ucanews.com on April 4. "It is an ongoing investigation." 

Assagaf, through a statement issued by his legal adviser Fahri Bachmid, claimed the incident was a misunderstanding and that he respects journalists.

For journalists in Indonesia, threats to their personal safety are an occupational hazard.

Last month, members of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) intimidated several editors at Tempo, an investigative magazine, after it published a cartoon interpreted as insulting Habib Rizieq Shihab, the Islamic scholar who founded the far-right Sunni political group. The magazine refused to apologize.

In another case on March 24, Leksi Salukh, a journalist at Victory News in East Nusa Tenggara, was threatened and called a "monkey and dog" by the mayor of Kupang after Leksi published a story critical of the mayor’s trip to the United States.

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