Authoritarians at the Gate

Last Thursday, judges at Indonesia's Central Jakarta Court sentenced me to one year in prison. As the editor-in-chief of Tempo Weekly Newsmagazine , I am guilty, according to the court, of defaming a business tycoon named Tomy Winata by implying his possible involvement in a fire at Jakarta's South-East Asia textile market, and of fomenting riots by disseminating lies. Does my case, and others like it, portend the end of yet another short-lived experiment with democracy in Indonesia?

The "riot" that I allegedly fomented occurred in March last year, when almost two hundred thugs claiming to be Winata's followers attacked Tempo's office, threatened to burn down the building, harassed staff, and injured one reporter. Trying to help resolve the situation peacefully, I was persuaded to negotiate at the Central Jakarta Police Station, but found to my horror that the mob leaders controlled the station. I was punched and kicked as the police looked the other way.

Fortunately, many journalists came to our rescue with tape recorders and cameras rolling. Their broadcasts caused a public outcry, which forced our parliament to organize a public hearing. The National and Jakarta police chiefs were called and, under massive public pressure, the leaders of the mob were criminally charged. But Winata himself eluded police investigation, merely by claiming publicly that his followers acted without his prior knowledge and consent.

He then filed criminal charges of his own, against Ahmad Taufik, who wrote the article, Teuku Iskandar Ali, who edited it, and me. The yearlong court proceedings were marked by a series of suspicious developments, all favoring Winata.