Time magazine to fight Suharto libel ruling

JAKARTA Tue Sep 11, 2007 6:05am EDT

Former Indonesian President Suharto waves as he arrives at the national police headquarters in Jakarta in this June 2, 1999 file photo. Time magazine will fight an Indonesian Supreme Court libel ruling in favor of former President Suharto which ordered the U.S. weekly to pay more than $100 million in damages and print apologies, Time's lawyer said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Enny Nuraheni

Former Indonesian President Suharto waves as he arrives at the national police headquarters in Jakarta in this June 2, 1999 file photo. Time magazine will fight an Indonesian Supreme Court libel ruling in favor of former President Suharto which ordered the U.S. weekly to pay more than $100 million in damages and print apologies, Time's lawyer said on Tuesday.

Credit: Reuters/Enny Nuraheni

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Time magazine will fight an Indonesian Supreme Court libel ruling in favor of former President Suharto which ordered the U.S. weekly to pay more than $100 million in damages and print apologies, Time's lawyer said on Tuesday.

"We will use all means available to challenge this decision," Todung Mulya Lubis told a news conference regarding the Supreme Court finding, which became public on Monday.

"What is at stake here is not only Time but also the freedom of the press," he said, adding that he and the magazine had not been notified formally of the verdict.

Time, owned by Time Warner Inc, published a May 1999 cover story alleging Suharto and his family had amassed a fortune of around $15 billion, including $9 billion in an Austrian bank account.

Lubis said the court ruling was a setback for reform of the country's judiciary, rated by anti-graft watchdogs as one of the institutions most prone to corruption.

"All attempts to fight corruption are being demolished by this Supreme Court's judgment," he said.

The Supreme Court "found the article has damaged the reputation and honor of the grand general of the Indonesian armed forces and former President of Indonesia," Supreme Court spokesman Nurhadi said on Monday.

"The lower level courts have wrongly applied the law, therefore their decisions have been annulled."

A spokeswoman for Time in Hong Kong declined to comment.

"Time has not received any notification from the court regarding a judgment, so we are unable to comment at this time," spokeswoman Michelle Shao said in an e-mail to Reuters.

CASE REVIEW

In its 1999 story "Suharto Inc", Time wrote that a four-month investigation by its correspondents covering 11 countries found six of Suharto's children owned significant stakes in at least 564 companies in Indonesia, and their overseas interests included hundreds of other firms from the United States to Uzbekistan.

Suharto's salary was only $1,764 a month when he left office, the magazine said.

Suharto first filed a lawsuit against Time in 1999, seeking 183 trillion rupiah in damages -- equivalent to $19.5 billion at the current exchange rate.

The case was thrown out by the Jakarta district court in June 2000. Suharto then lodged an appeal with a higher court, which was turned down in March 2001. It is common for court cases to drag on for years in Indonesia.

Under Indonesian law, Time magazine lawyers may file for a case review, which requires new evidence to be submitted.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called the ruling "absurd" and said it threw the reputation of Indonesia's legal system into question.

The ruling "sets an onerous precedent that could have a chilling effect on journalists investigating corruption in Indonesia," the CPJ said in a statement.

Suharto, 86, resigned in 1998 after 32 years in power. Critics say he and his family amassed billions during his rule, but the former president and members of his family have denied any wrongdoing.

Suharto was previously charged with graft but escaped prosecution when he was deemed too ill to stand trial.

Earlier this month, Indonesia's state prosecutors failed to reach an out-of-court settlement in a $1.5 billion lawsuit against Suharto, part of efforts to recover state funds allegedly misused by Suharto's charitable foundations.