- A palm oil company that’s part of the Jhonlin Group owned by influential tycoon Haji Isam is embroiled in a conflict with indigenous peoples that led to the arrest of investigative journalist Diananta Putra Sumedi by the police.
- Diananta had published an online article quoting indigenous Dayak villagers complaining about alleged land grabbing by the company.
- A source in the story later denied the quotes attributed to him, and Indonesia’s Press Council recommended the story be withdrawn. Despite this, the police insist the criminal investigation will continue.
- Another Jhonlin Group company filed similar complaints against another reporter in 2018; that reporter, Muhammad Yusuf, later died in police custody.
JAKARTA — Activists have condemned the arrest of a journalist in Indonesia for reporting on a land conflict between a palm oil company owned by a powerful tycoon and indigenous groups in Borneo.
Police arrested Diananta Putra Sumedi on May 4 and charged him under a controversial 2016 law on electronic communications. The law has frequently been used to bring charges against individuals, including journalists, on the nebulous grounds that their writings or statements “cause offense.” Diananta faces up to six years in prison if convicted.
In a statement, the International Federation of Journalists called on the Indonesian police to release Diananta, the chief editor of the news site banjarhits.id and correspondent for investigative outlet Tempo.
“IFJ has seen continued efforts to criminalize journalists in Indonesia,” it said. “The Press Council has a clear complaints mechanism for solving disputes, and this has been ignored. IFJ urges the police to release Diananta immediately, respect decisions made by the Press Council and ensure the safety of journalists in the country.”
The case stems from a news report published by banjarhits.id and syndicated by the bigger news site Kumparan on Nov. 19, 2019, under the heading “Jhonlin seizes land, Dayaks complain to the South Kalimantan Police.” It quoted indigenous Dayak people in the village of Cantung Kiri Hilir, South Kalimantan province, as being critical of the palm oil firm Jhonlin Agro Raya (JAR). The company is part of the Jhonlin Group owned by tycoon Andi Syamsudin Arsyad, popularly known as Haji Isam, part of the large ethnic Bugis community that migrated to Borneo from the island of Sulawesi.
The report quoted Sukirman, a Dayak member, as saying that the alleged land grabbing by JAR could trigger conflict between the Dayak and Bugis communities. Sukirman also said in the article that Haji Isam had treated the Dayak people unjustly.
Following the article’s publication, Sukirman filed a complaint with the police, saying he had never said the things attributed to him. He also said he didn’t want to inflame ethnic tensions and preferred to resolve the land dispute amicably or through the courts.
He also complained to the Press Council, which mediates disputes over news reporting. The council ruled on Jan. 9 that the article breached the journalistic code of ethics, and on Feb. 5 it recommended that Kumparan publish a right of reply and delete the original article, explaining why.
JAR also reported Kumparan to the Press Council, leading to the news site taking down three articles related to the land conflict between the company and the villagers, including the one quoting Sukirman. The other two were headed “For the sake of palm oil, Jhonlin displaces the land of people in three villages in Kotabaru,” and “Dayaks in all Kalimantan will occupy contested land in Kotabaru.”
A Google search for the land conflict now yields no media coverage of the case, except stories about Diananta’s arrest. JAR did not respond to an inquiry by Mongabay.
Yet despite the Press Council having already ruled on the case, the police pushed on with the criminal complaint. They refused to release Diananta after his lawyers argued that his family depended on him for their livelihood and cited the risk of keeping him in a crowded jail cell amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The police said Diananta might destroy evidence relating to the investigation if released. They also said he might publish more stories deemed “negative.” South Kalimantan police spokesman Mochammad Rifai said investigators had questioned all parties involved in the case, as well as experts, and concluded there were grounds for criminal charges.
The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), the Indonesian affiliate of the IFJ, condemned the continued detention in the wake of the Press Council’s resolution and the compliance of the respective media outlets.
“According to the memorandum of understanding signed by Press Council and the Chief of National Police, it is clear that every dispute related with journalism should be settled in the Press Council,” AJI said. “AJI condemns the arrest which shows the fact that police neglected the MoU and do not respect the press freedom.”
This isn’t the first time a journalist’s coverage of Haji Isam’s Jhonlin Group has landed them in hot water. In 2018, Jhonlin subsidiary PT Multi Sarana Agro Mandiri (MSAM) filed a police complaint against Muhammad Yusuf over at least 23 online news reports about a land conflict involving the company.
Parts of MSAM’s concession in Pulau Laut, a small island off the coast of South Kalimantan, are claimed by several other firms as well as by farmers who accuse the company of bulldozing their crops to make way for its plantation, which Yusuf reported on. Police arrested him on the same charges under the electronic communications act as Diananta. Yusuf died of a heart attack after more than a month in custody.
Banner image: Former chief editor of local online media, banjarhits.id Diananta Putra Sumedi with his lawyer. Image courtesy of AJI Balikpapan.
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