Criminal Defamation: Tide is Turning in South East Asia

The tide appears to be turning against criminal defamation in South East Asia following recent developments in East Timor, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia, says the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

These developments suggest that national leaders and courts are increasingly heeding calls to uphold freedom of expression and protect media workers from criminal prosecution for doing their job of reporting the news.

Great progress has been made in the following countries:

East Timor: Gusmao sends defamation bill back for reconsideration

The campaign to stop East Timor’s new defamation bill appears to be making significant ground. On Friday, February 17, East Timorese president Xanana Gusmao sent a draft decree law criminalising defamation back to the Ministry of Justice for reconsideration.

The decree law amends the penal code to allow penalties of up to three years imprisonment and unlimited fines for defaming a public official.

The revisions were passed by national parliament and signed by prime minister Mari Alkatiri on December 6, 2005, the decree only awaits president Gusmao’s signature before becoming law.

Fearing that the amendments will undermine press freedom and unreasonably insulate authorities from criticism, IFJ affiliates, the Sindicato dos Jornalistas de Timor Leste (SJTL) and Timor Lorosae Journalists' Association (TLJA) have spearheaded a national campaign urging president Gusmao to exercise his constitutional veto power to block the decree law.

Latest reports indicated that the president was awaiting recommendations from the appellate court before taking action.

Cambodia: PM to support decriminalising defamation

In a landmark move, prime minister Hun Sen has committed his support to the campaign to decriminalise defamation in Cambodia.

While defamation remains an offence, it should be tried in civil, not criminal courts, the prime minister declared on Monday, February 13. The prime minister went on to say that compensation is the appropriate solution for victims of defamation.

Decriminalising defamation means that the penalty for convicted defendants will be limited to payment of damages, instead of up to one year’s jail time and a fine of up to ten million riel (USD 2,600) as provided by harsh existing defamation laws.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony in Kandal province, the prime minister called for public education to help the public understand that freedom of expression is limited and should not cause harm to others.

The historic announcement followed a recent meeting with opposition leader Sam Rainsy. Rainsy received a royal pardon on February 5 after he was convicted of defaming the prime minister and his junior coalition partner, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and sentenced to 18 months prison.

Sam Rainsy’s pardon followed the release of Mom Sonando, director of Beehive Radio, who was released on January 17 after he was arrested on October 11 on charges of criminal defamation for broadcasting an interview about the government’s border policy.

The IFJ welcomes the prime minister’s commitment and strongly commends the advancement of press freedom and democratic rights in Cambodia.

Thailand – Supinya says no to Shin Corp. settlement

On Friday February 17, media reformer Supinya Klangnarong turned down an offer by Shin Corporation to drop criminal defamation charges against her and the Thai Post and enter in to an out-of-court settlement.

Supinya, secretary general of Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR), rejected the telecommunications giant’s surprise deal and urged Shin Corp to respect media freedom and drop the Bt400 million defamation lawsuit against her of its own accord.

“I would agree to settle the case if Shin Corp made an announcement that it embraces press freedom,” Supinya said.

Shin Corp filed defamation charges after an interview with Supinya was published in the Thai Post in July 2003 that alleged that the company, formerly owned by the prime minister’s family, stood to benefit financially from prime minister Thaksin’s policies.

With only a month until the high-profile March 15 verdict, Shin Corp.'s lawyer contacted Supinya on February 14 offering to settle the two-year litigation out of court if Supinya apologised for her statements. The details of the settlement and the reasons behind the back-down were not disclosed.

The verdict, slated for March 15, will set a crucial precedent for the interpretation of defamation laws and constitutional rights to free expression in Thailand.

Backing Supinya’s decision, media advocacy group CPMR issued a five-point statement questioning the plaintiff’s motive. The statement said that media freedom is a public issue, and that decisions concerning public interest should be decided under public scrutiny instead of behind closed doors.

Indonesia: Harymurti acquitted in landmark press freedom verdict

On February 9, 2006, a unanimous Supreme Court bench overturned Bambang Harymurti’s criminal defamation conviction, holding that the Press Law should be used in defamation cases against journalists instead of the Criminal Law.

The verdict sets an important precedent guiding Indonesian Courts to try defamation as a civil offence.

Handed down by justices Djoko Sarwoko, Harifin A. Tumpa and chief justice Bagir Manan, the verdict overturns a criminal conviction and one-year jail sentence handed down by the High Court of Jakarta and the Regency Court of Central Jakarta.

Spokesperson justice Sarwoko said that the decision was made in recognition of the media’s important role as the fourth pillar of democracy in keeping society informed. However, he warned that the court’s protection extends only to journalists who embrace journalistic ethics.

Harymurti was convicted on September 16, 2004, of defaming well-connected businessman Tomy Winata in an article published in Tempo magazine from March 3-9, 2003. The article contained allegations linking Winata to a suspicious fire in Tanah Abang textile market. Winata launched at least nine criminal defamation cases against Tempo group after the story ran, a number of which are currently being heard.

The Supreme Court decision follows a decision by the High Court of Lampung on September 27,2005.

Justice Muhamad Munawir and Justice Rukmiri led by Justice Haogoara Harefa overturned a criminal defamation conviction against Koridor chief editor, Darwin Ruslinur and journalist Budiono Saputro ruling that the Press Law should be used in this defamation case.

The two journalists were serving a nine-month jail sentence handed down by Lampung District Court on May 4, 2005.

The journalists were found guilty of defaming Alzier Dianis Thabrani and Indra Karyadi in an article published in the Koridor in the July 12 – 18 edition titled "Alzier Dianis Thabranie and Indra Karyadi were Strongly Indicated Corrupt the Fund for Golkar Party's Witnesses of Rp 1,25 Billion".

The article reported on complaints by Golkar Party witnesses about a reduction in the amount of pay they were to receive during the presidential general election in 2004. According to the article, the witnesses were promised a payment of 50,000 Rp by the Golkar Party’s campaign team, but received only 15,000 Rp.

These latest developments represent a great step forward for press freedom across South East Asia. While welcoming these incidents, IFJ president Christopher Warren cautions that the task ahead is to ensure that governments across South East Asia remove defamation from their criminal codes completely.

“While these incidents suggest moves in the right direction, its important that we keep up our efforts to ensure that no journalist is ever jailed for doing their job of reporting the news,” said Warren.

For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0919

The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries