The trial of one brave journalist in Indonesia has implications far beyond the courtroom in Jakarta. By the time this article appears, the Central Jakarta District Court is supposed to have handed down a verdict in the case of Bambang Harymurti, the chief editor of Tempo, Indonesia's leading newsmagazine, and two of his colleagues.
I hope that reason will prevail on the court and this charge—which never should have been filed—will be dismissed. The mere fact that this case has been brought, however, is a threat to the freedom and democracy that Indonesia has enjoyed since the collapse of the Suharto government six years ago.
The Indonesian government has charged Mr. Bambang with criminal defamation. The charges stem from an article in Tempo that reported on accusations that a suspicious fire in a market in Jakarta in February 2003 may have been connected to plans to turn that area into a fancy commercial shopping center. The plans were possibly connected to a wealthy Indonesian businessman named Tomy Winata.
Mr. Winata sued for civil defamation and, unusually, the government charged Mr. Bambang and two of his colleagues with criminal defamation under laws dating to the Dutch colonial period and the early years of independence. Prosecutors have asked for two-year sentences and—even more unusually—have asked that Mr. Bambang be detained immediately, treating him like a dangerous criminal who should not be allowed to remain at large.
In the interest of disclosure, I should say that I have known Mr. Bambang for nearly 20 years. I knew him particularly well in the late 1980's, when I was American ambassador in Jakarta. I know him to be a journalist of enormous integrity, someone who takes seriously his responsibility not only to publish the truth but also not to publish falsehoods. He is also a Muslim who has courageously denounced terrorism and extremism on the editorial pages of his magazine.
But my concerns about this case extend far beyond my worry about the fate of a friend. I believe that the whole world has a stake in the success of democracy in Indonesia. If this country of almost 240 million, with more Muslims than any other in the world—indeed, with more than 15 percent of the world's Muslim population—can demonstrate its capacity to develop democratic institutions, even in the face of economic adversity, it will be a valuable example for the rest of the world. This is particularly true because Indonesia's strong tradition of religious tolerance in a nation that is almost 90 percent Muslim also makes it an important role model in the post-Sept. 11 world. It is no accident that the terrorist fanatics associated with Al Qaeda have been attacking Indonesia, even before the horrendous bombings in Bali in October 2002. And the attacks continue, with one just last week.
Indonesia has made remarkable progress in developing democratic institutions, despite the catastrophic economic conditions that the new government inherited with the financial collapse that accompanied the demise of the Suharto dictatorship. The country held a fair presidential election in 1999, parliamentary elections last April and is about to conduct a runoff on Monday to complete its second democratic presidential election. These are no small achievements.
While holding two fair presidential elections in a row is a hallmark of democratic progress, the real test of a democracy is how it protects the rights of its citizens. Our own Declaration of Independence doesn't speak of elections but rather about the rights of all human beings to certain ''inalienable rights,'' in particular ''life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'' And it is a fundamental principle of our Constitution that citizens cannot be deprived of those rights except by due process of law. Elections are properly viewed as a mechanism to hold government accountable, particularly in its most fundamental responsibility of protecting the rights of its individual citizens.
Accordingly, the rule of law is one of the essential pillars of a democratic society. There are few powers that a democratic state possesses that are as awesome as the power to prosecute its own citizens lawfully. And few things are more threatening to a true democracy than the abuse of that prosecutorial power.
One of the worst possible ways that power can be abused is to take away the freedom of the press and thereby remove one of the most important mechanisms for ensuring that government respects the rights of its citizens. As Mr. Bambang pointed out in his eloquent pleading before the court in August, the collapse of Indonesia's first brief experience with democracy in the 1950's began with ''an attempt to undermine freedom of the domestic press through the criminalization of journalists.''
Under President Sukarno, 60 press cases were brought before the Special State Court in September 1957 alone. As Mr. Bambang said: ''The world's train has long raced away from the station where journalistic works are still criminalized. We ought to be included in the carriage of the world community's progress, and not left behind at the station of backwardness, one that is more fitting to be displayed in a museum and not as a destination.''
Both of the candidates in next Monday's presidential runoff election have expressed concern over this case. One hopes that beyond acquitting Mr. Bambang and his colleagues of any of the criminal charges pressed against them, Indonesia will take steps to ensure that this intimidation of a free press should cease.