Subject: FT: E-Mail Prosecution Sparks Outcry in Indonesia

The Finanacial Times (UK) June 4, 2009

E-Mail Prosecution Sparks Outcry in Indonesia

By John Aglionby in Jakarta

Authorities in Indonesia were scrambling on Thursday to justify draconian defamation laws after a public outcry over the detention and prosecution of a woman who e-mailed 10 friends about her dissatisfaction at a hospital’s service.

Prita Mulyasari, 32, a bank employee with two young children, went on trial on Thursday charged with criminal defamation under the criminal code and the Information and Electronic Transaction law of 2008. She denies the charges.

The court in Tangerang, 25km west of Jakarta, was packed with scores of supporters, including high-profile lawyers offering pro-bono assistance.

More than 130,000 people have backed her on the Facebook social networking site, she is dominating the news and all three candidates in next month’s presidential election have waded into the case.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is seeking re-election next month, has a mixed record on freedom of speech. Some laws he has approved have enhanced freedoms while others have curtailed it.

He has ordered a review of the case while Megawati Sukarnoputri, one of his challengers, visited Mrs Prita in detention on Wednesday and Jusuf Kalla, the third contender, said the dispute should never have gone to court.

Mrs Prita’s plight has also highlighted widespread concerns about medical standards in a country where hundreds of thousands of wealthy people prefer to seek treatment overseas.

Her case comes a month after a woman received a six-month suspended sentence after the publication of a letter she wrote to a newspaper about a dispute she was involved in with a property developer.

Freedom of speech activists, who admit they are surprised by the scale of the public outcry, say they hope to use Mrs Prita’s case to campaign for the revocation of criminal defamation, particularly in the two laws she is charged under.

They argue that either the press law or the consumer law are adequate to prosecute libel cases as both stipulate rights and responsibilities of plaintiffs and defendants.

Enda Nasution, a prominent blogger who has mobilised much of the support for Mrs Prita, said the government “needs advice on how to implement laws if it insists on keeping them”.

There was a real threat that “if this kind of case continues to come up then people will be afraid to complain about anything when they have the right to do so under other laws”, he said.

The case dates back to August when Mrs Prita sought treatment at the private Omni International hospital in Tangerang. She e-mailed friends after being dissatisfied with both the service and the way that her complaint was handled.

The 1,750-word missive was forwarded to the media and after Mrs Prita declined to back down the hospital and doctors involved filed a criminal complaint and a civil suit.

Risma Situmorang, Omni International’s lawyer, said the hospital rejected all Mrs Prita’s allegations and was “forced to take legal action to defend its reputation”.

Last month Mrs Prita lost the civil suit and was fined Rp262m ($26,000, €18,500, £16,000). Prosecutors then demanded she be prosecuted under the IET law in addition to the criminal code, which resulted in her detention.

The outcry escalated this week to such an extent that on Wednesday the Tangerang court backed down and released her to city arrest. The trial continues next week.

Additional reporting by Taufan Hidayat in Tangerang

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