When TIME's Asian edition published an investigative story in 1999 demonstrating how Indonesian leader Suharto and his children had enriched themselves during his 32-year rule, the former dictator sued the magazine for libel. He asked for a remarkable sum of money $27 billion and he lost. The Central Jakarta District Court rejected his suit in 2000, a decision that was subsequently upheld by an intermediate appellate court and widely viewed as a victory for press freedom in the country.
Suharto's lawyers continued to appeal the decision, however, all the way up to Indonesia's Supreme Court. There was no indication that the case had progressed, until yesterday. Press reports quoted a court spokesman in Jakarta as saying that the Supreme Court has ruled against TIME, awarding Suharto who stepped down as President in 1998 and who, at age 86, is apparently in declining health $106 million and calling for TIME to print an apology.
TIME and its lawyers assume the reports are accurate, even though TIME hasn't yet been informed of any decision. The magazine stands by its story. "This is a blow to freedom of the press, and it means it is not safe for the press to work," Todung Mulya Lubis, an Indonesian lawyer representing TIME, told Agence France Presse. "TIME will take any legal measures available to defend freedom of the press, because this is important to uphold justice and the truth."
The article in question, a 14-page story entitled "The Family Firm" (the cover line read "Suharto Inc.,") showed how Suharto and his children built up a fortune estimated at $15 billion in "cash, shares, corporate assets, real estate, jewelry and fine art," amid a climate of corruption, collusion and nepotism.
Suharto denied the charges, and when he brought his lawsuit, many observers assumed that a foreign publication wouldn't be able to get a fair trial in Indonesia when it was up against a former President who had appointed the judges hearing the case. Yet the Jakarta court ruled that the article had been published in the public interest, a defense against defamation in Indonesia, and that Suharto had presented insufficient evidence to support his claims. The court also ruled that TIME had "covered both sides" in its article.
It's unclear why the Indonesian Supreme Court has apparently now overturned that ruling. Neither side presented any fresh arguments before the high court. Once TIME is officially notified of the decision, it has the option of filing a request that the court review its decision, the final stage in the Indonesian legal process.
Ironically, the Indonesian government has pursued its own cases against Suharto, alleging widespread corruption. Indonesia's attorney general dropped corruption charges last year, citing Suharto's inability to defend himself due to poor health. But press reports indicate that a civil case seeking more than $1.5 billion, which alleges that Suharto misused charity funds during his rule, is still pending.