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Indonesian editor: Press freedom waning
( 2003-10-28 16:43) (Agencies)

The editor of a racy Indonesian newspaper on Tuesday said his conviction for "spreading hatred" constitutes a setback for press freedom but conceded he'll stop using his front page to skewer the country's leaders.

Rakyat Merdeka editor Supratman was given a suspended six-month jail term and a year probation on Monday. He is the newspaper's second employee in two months to be jailed for running afoul of the government in what appears to be a growing trend of punishing Indonesia's freewheeling press through the courts.

Supratman told The Associated Press that the verdict will likely force the country's press to reassess how it covers the news and start practicing self-censorship not seen since the fall of ex-dictator Suharto. Rakyat Merdeka will now direct its bold, confrontational headlines and critical cartoons at government policy, not those who make it, he said.

Supratman, the editor Rakyat Merdeka newspaper, raises his fist before the start of his trial at a district court in Jakarta Monday, Oct. 27, 2003. The editor for one of Indonesia's flashiest tabloids was convicted of 'spreading hatred' Monday and given a suspended, six-month jail term over headlines that compared the president to a leach and cannibal.  [AP]
"Even though I wasn't jailed, the impact will be great," said the 34-year-old Supratman, who was acquitted on a more serious charge of slandering President Megawati Sukarnoputri that could have landed him a six-year term.

"The problem is not over my serving a jail sentence," he said. "The problem is the guilty verdict. We can no longer use these types of headlines to lambast the country's leaders. It's a step backward for the country's press freedom."

Rakyat Merdeka has earned a loyal following among the country's working poor with headlines that have compared President Bush to Hitler and portrayed the country's top two political parties as name-calling babies.

The guilty verdict is the latest setback for the press which has grown in leaps and bounds since the resignation of Suharto in 1998. There are now more than 600 magazines and newspapers churning out mix of grisly crime stories, celebrity gossip and investigative stories that tackle formally taboo topics like ethnic conflicts and corruption.

But in the past year the government has begun to lose its patience with the press.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri has used her rare public appearances to attack the media. The military has accused the press of failing to tow a nationalist line in its coverage of the ongoing separatist war in Aceh province.

Press groups say attacks against reporters from security forces, politicians and public mobs are on the rise and the government is considering amending the criminal code to include as many as 38 articles that could be used to jail journalists.

The government and the political elite are increasingly turning to the courts when critical stories appear about them.

Last month, a Jakarta court sentenced Rakyat Merdeka's news editor to five months in jail for defamation for publishing a cartoon of Parliament speaker Akbar Tandjung shirtless and dripping with sweat.

Editors from Tempo, a widely respected news magazine, are in court fighting a libel lawsuit brought by a businessman with links to the military.

Supratman was found guilty after he published headlines critical of Megawati during anti-government protests earlier this year over fuel and utility hikes. One headline called Megawati a leech, one said she's more vicious than a well-known Javanese cannibal and one declared that her mouth reeks of oil.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was "dismayed" by the verdict and local journalists said it could halt anti-government reporting.

Others said the verdict could serve as a warning to an often reckless press. Reporters routinely are accused of taking money to write stories and some publishers have reportedly used their newfound power to target political enemies.

Sitting at his sparsely furnished office, Supratman said he was saddened by the verdict. But he vowed the verdict would not keep him from doing his job.

"It is our duty to inform the people with truth whether it's good or bad," he said.

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