Indonesia: Borneo reporter jailed after palm oil giant complains

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate release of a journalist held since 4 May in South Kalimantan province, in the far south of the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo, on a charge of inciting hatred in an article about a land dispute between a palm oil company and an indigenous ethnic group.



Diananta Putra Sumedi was finally sentenced on 10 August to three and a half months in prison for inciting hatred and violating journalistic ethics. The Kotabaru district court’s judges found him in breach of article 28 of the Electronic Information and Transactions Law. RSF regards his conviction as a disturbing act of intimidation that is all the more unacceptable because the Jhonlin Group’s complaint against him had already been referred to, and settled, by the Press Council.


Diananta Putra Sumedi, the editor of the local news website and correspondent for the investigative newspaper Tempo, is facing a possible six-year jail sentence on a charge of “information causing enmity” under article  28.2 of the “Informasi dan Transaksi Elektronik” (Electronic Information and Transactions Law), which is supposed to regulate online reporting.

He was arrested in response to a criminal complaint by the Indonesian palm oil giant, the Jhonlin Group, about an article he posted on and then on the collaborative news platform Kumparan last November about a dispute over land that a Jhonlin Group subsidiary allegedly took from three villages inhabited by members of the Dayak, an indigenous people in southern Borneo’s dense forests.

The Jhonlin Group initially complained to the “Dewan Pers” (the Press Council), which is supposed to resolve press issues without reference to the courts. Then, after a Dayak representative retracted one of the statements attributed to him in the article, and Kumparan both published corrections.

Terrifying message

The matter could have ended there. But the Jhonlin Group finally filed its criminal complaint, which the police see as grounds not only for arresting Sumedi but also for continuing to hold him. Sumedi has to remain in detention because otherwise he “might continue to write stories about this case,” a police spokesman said.

“Writing articles about ongoing disputes is precisely the basis of journalism and, furthermore, is also one of the best ways of resolving them harmoniously,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“We urge South Kalimantan governor Sahbirin Noor to order Diananta Putra Sumedi’s immediate and unconditional release. The harassment to which he has been subjected sends a terrifying message to all journalists – ‘Don’t investigate the activities of one of the country’s biggest palm oil producers or you will end up in prison’.”


This is not the first time a reporter has been arrested in connection with their coverage of allegedly illegal land seizures by oil palm plantations. Muhammad Yusuf died in detention in unclear circumstances in 2018, five weeks after being arrested in South Kalimantan province as a result of a complaint by MSAM, another Jhonlin Group subsidiary, over his coverage of its disputes with local indigenous groups.

The case aroused suspicions about the independence of South Kalimantan’s institutions, inasmuch as the province’s governor, Sahbirin Noor, is the uncle of the wealthy businessman who owns MSAM. 

Indonesia is ranked 119th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 11.08.2020