Indonesian police want courts to save their bacon

Calling a police officer a ‘pig’ isn’t usually a very smart idea in any country, but in a country like Indonesia – where pigs are religiously maligned animals and the police are widely known to practise torture  – it’s even dumber.

But what if you are a journalist or blogger who is writing about an official report that suggested dishonest officers might be stuffing their loot into fat bank accounts, and in your headline or accompanying art you refer to “piggy banks”? It’s not really the same thing as calling the police “pigs”, is it?

Unfortunately for respected news weekly Tempo, that’s not how the Indonesian police see things. The police think a piggy bank is the same as a pig, and they have vowed to sue the magazine. The alleged offence came on the front cover of last week’s edition, which depicted a well-proportioned (and all-too human) police officer taking a walk with three precocious little piggy banks on leashes of yellow crime scene tape.

The story was about allegations that several top police generals have millions of dollars in ill-gotten loot stuffed into their bank accounts. President Yudhoyono has urged the police to investigate the allegations.

Given the long history of such allegations and persistent reports of police being involved in all sorts of rackets, it’s hardly surprising that they would be a little defensive. But they appear to be far more worried about being called pigs than about being called thoroughly and blatantly corrupt.

Tempo has even suggested that undercover police were the mysterious buyers who appeared at distribution depots in the middle of the night to snap up hundreds of copies of the printed magazine before it could reach newsstands.

So whatever you do, don’t call the Indonesian police a bunch of pigs because that will upset them and you could get sued and go to jail. And don’t even suggest they use piggy banks either, because that’s just so hurtful and unkind and if you did that you would deserve to go to jail as well, under laws that make it an offence to insult a government institution.

As the police chief, General Bambang Hendarso Danuri, said last week:

The fact that we are illustrated as pigs hurts us a lot. Don’t illustrate us like that. We’ll try to prevent our personnel from being angry because they were illustrated as pigs, which is haram (forbidden). This will definitely provoke our personnel.

He’s almost encouraging police to be provoked and angry. The fact remains for all to see, however, that Tempo did not refer to the police as pigs or even compare them to pigs.

The offending cover was not available on Tempo’s website on Monday, but the subsequent English language edition was. Some say it is even harsher than the original, placing the piggy bank directly over the officer’s face. I would reprint it here but I’m afraid of being thrown in jail.

Either way, the whole episode is another sad example of what Indonesian journalist Taufik Darusman called the “perverse sense of entitlement” that characterises police culture in what is often called the world’s third-biggest democracy. He notes that an official body made similar allegations in 2005 but police did nothing about them because of a “lack of supporting data”.

It’s also another perfect illustration of the way powerful interests and institutions are using criminal and civil libel laws to threaten, intimidate and – even if they fail to prove their allegations in court – silence critics and whistleblowers. I’ve blogged about it before and it’s been well documented by Human Rights Watch and others.

This is what Human Rights Watch Asia advocacy director Sophie Richardson had to say about it:

The decision by the police to file a criminal complaint against Tempo makes it clear that despite their claims to reform, many government officials and institutions in Indonesia, including the police, are unwilling to tolerate healthy criticism and public accountability.  The claim that their objection relates to the magazine’s cover art rather than the content of the article alleging corruption in the police force is ultimately irrelevant.

Rather than responding proactively to allegations of corruption within the Indonesian police force by launching an investigation, the police have chosen to attack a highly respected media outlet with criminal charges.  To make matters worse, officials from the very institution that filed the criminal claim against Tempo will be responsible for investigating it.  This poses a serious conflict of interest and calls into question the ability of the police to conduct an impartial investigation.

As we have seen again and again, as long as Indonesia’s criminal defamation laws remain valid, they will be open for use as a tool of retaliation by public officials against those who criticize them.  Even if Tempo eventually prevails against the police in court, filing of this claim by the police will deter would-be whistleblowers from coming forward with evidence of corruption by the police or other officials in the future.

President Yudhoyono should recognize that the filing of criminal defamation claims by government institutions accused of wrongdoing has detrimental consequences for the rule of law and freedom of expression in Indonesia and calls into question his commitment to eradicating pervasive corruption.

The problem is that Yudhoyono doesn’t seem to have the power or courage to take on the police. On one hand he admits that the country’s legal system is run by a “court mafia” including police and prosecutors, but on the other he trusts the police to investigate alleged large-scale corruption by senior officers.

Pigs might fly.

(Photo courtesy of yoppy via flickr)

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