Journalism and Syariah in Aceh: Uncomfortable Co-existence

Author: Janet Steele, Nadya Noor

A suicide is always tragic, but teenage suicide is particularly so. In the case of the young Acehnese girl, Putri Erlina, the personal tragedy of suicide was overwhelmed by the public debate that it triggered.

The tragedy illustrates the complicated and contested relationship between secular law and Islamic Syariah in Aceh. The divisions within the journalists’ community over journalistic ethics and Syariah appear to reflect a larger controversy within the public sphere over the lack of a clear consensus on the implementation of Islamic criminal bylaws in Aceh. In this sense, the discussion of press ethics mirrors the broader discussion of Syariah, something that everyone formally “supports,” but which is still highly contested in everyday practice.

The bare facts

There are certain basic facts upon which everyone agrees. On the night of 3 September 2012, 16-year-old Putri Erlina and a female friend were detained by the Wilayatul Hisbah, or “Syariah Police” in Langsa, a city in Aceh, Indonesia.[1] Their offence was being out after midnight in an open field. After being questioned and told not to engage in such behaviour again, the two were sent home, as they had committed no punishable offence. Putri went to her aunt’s house.

Before she left, the Wilayatul Hisbah contacted a local reporter from Prohaba newspaper, a broadsheet devoted to sex, crime and mysticism. The Prohaba reporter did a quick story, published the next morning with the headline “Dua Pelacur ABG Dibeureukah WH” or “Two Teen Prostitutes Detained by WH [Syariah Police].”[2]

Two days later, Putri went home to her father’s house in Langsa. Her father and older brother were there when she returned, but left shortly thereafter to attend a wedding party. When they came home some hours later, they discovered that she had hanged herself. On 10 September, her family found a farewell note, in which she said that she had never sold herself, but that she had shamed the family.

Although the facts of the tragedy seem to be straightforward, the journalists’ community in Aceh was almost immediately divided over who was to blame. Was the tragedy caused by the excesses of “yellow [salacious] journalism”, focusing on titillating incidents involving the violation of Islamic criminal bylaws? Or was a large part of the national and international outrage at the teenager’s suicide actually aimed at Syariah itself?

Dad, please forgive me, I caused you shame with everyone. But I swear that I have never sold myself to anyone. That night I just wanted to watch a keyboardist at Langsa; I was just hanging out in a field with my friends.

The precise nature of good journalism is heavily contested in Aceh, not only among industry practitioners, but also in the wider public sphere. For some, such as the local branch of AJI (Alliance of Independent Journalists), journalistic ethics should be based on international standards and the Code of Ethics enshrined in the Indonesian Press Law. For others, such as the hastily convened KWPSI (the Caucus of Journalists Who Defend Islamic Syariah), defence of Prohaba’s news judgment was based on defence of Syariah itself.

But was the Prohaba dispute really about defending Syariah, or rather about siding with government authorities and defending the reputation of the publisher, Serambi Indonesia, Aceh’s biggest and most powerful newspaper company? Differing views of the relationship between journalism and Islam are apparent in the competing ethical standards that have emerged in these and other debates over reporting on the implementation of Islamic criminal bylaws in Aceh, which were enshrined in provincial law in 2006 as part of the resolution of Aceh’s long-standing separatist conflict.

Disputes over media ethics

The public dispute over the meaning of Putri Erlina’s suicide began on 17 September, when AJI Banda Aceh, the local branch of the national Alliance of Independent Journalists, called a press conference and said that Prohaba had violated the journalists’ Code of Ethics.

According to Taufik Al Mubarak, then the head of AJI Banda Aceh’s organisation division, there were no Serambi journalists at the press conference. Regardless of whether this was true, there were Serambi journalists on AJI’s internal mailing list, and comments that had been published on this listserv raised the newspaper’s ire.[3] According to Yarmen Dinamika, Serambi’s managing editor, AJI had said that Putri Erlina killed herself because of the headline in Prohaba. Serambi could not tolerate these accusations, and on 25 September filed a police report under Indonesia’s criminal code (KUHP), demanding that Taufik Al Mubarak be charged with mencemarkan nama baik, or criminal defamation.[4]

Meanwhile, on 19 September, Eko Maryadi, the head AJI Indonesia, and Maimum Saleh, the head of AJI Banda Aceh, filed a formal complaint with the Indonesian Press Council, stating that Prohaba, Aceh Tribune News (the online version of Serambi and Prohaba), and the Medan newspaper Waspada had violated the journalistic Code of Ethics.[5] Senior journalist and publisher Leo Batubara led a team of five from the Press Council who convened a hearing in Medan.[6]

Mediation failed, and on 25 October, the Press Council issued an evaluation and recommendation from Jakarta. All three publications were found to have violated the Code of Ethics, and it was suggested that they apologise to the family of Putri Erlina, and give them the right to reply. The Press Council refused to rule on whether the story in Prohaba had led to Putri’s suicide, as such a question was outside its jurisdiction.

Indonesia’s Press Council

Before going into the conflicting narratives that came out of the tragedy, it is important to explain the role of the Press Council, which owes its creation to Indonesia’s landmark 1999 Press Law. Signed into law by President Habibie on 23 September 1999 as one of his last legislative acts, UU Pers no. 40/1999 has received widespread acclaim as a model press law. Leo Batubara, who was at that time the head of the Indonesian Newspaper Publishers’ Association, called it a “masterpiece.”[7]

By effectively eliminating state control of print media, the 1999 Press Law redefined Indonesian press–government relations. It guarantees freedom of the press, eliminated licensing as a means of controlling the press, removes the government’s ability to ban publications, and limits the power of the government to introduce subsequent regulations. Significantly, and for the first time, the law also provided penalties of fines or imprisonment for those who attempted to restrict press freedom, and allowed for self-regulation of the press through the establishment of an independent Press Council and a Journalistic Code of Ethics (Kode Etik Jurnalistik).

Despite these positive developments, Indonesian journalists still face a number of serious challenges, most notably from defamation provisions of the Criminal Code (KUHP) that are at odds with the Press Law. The Criminal Code contains at least 40 clauses that can be used against journalists.[8] Although the Press Council is supposed to adjudicate in media disputes, and despite a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that the Press Law should be used in all cases involving the press, authorities continue to undermine its mandate by bringing defamation charges to the courts.

Attacks on Syariah

Nurdinsyam has the look of a crime reporter. A straight-shooter, the 50-something chief editor of Prohaba has a gravelly voice and the hardened demeanour of someone who has seen it all.[9] We met at a noisy coffee shop in Banda Aceh, where he appeared to know nearly everyone. Nurdinsyam was the managing editor of Prohaba at the time of the story’s publication, and he is adamant: there was nothing wrong with the headline in Prohaba, or even with the use of the word pelacur (prostitute) because Putri had already confessed to the Syariah Police when she was detained. “We got that word from her own doings,” he said. “There were witnesses.”

“She was a young girl, she was often in the street, night until morning, and she was connected with free sex,” he said. Moreover, he continued, the word pelacur does not even have to refer to sex:

Pelacur is not limited only by nafsu biologis (biological lust). It can also be forsaking one’s self-esteem, or dignity. For example a journalist doesn’t work in keeping with his profession. But he works by receiving money, envelopes from another person. He is prostituting his profession. A teacher, he doesn’t teach what’s true, but has another profession outside and ignores his students. He is prostituting his profession. So there are wider meanings than “selling yourself” for sex. But it is a general meaning, people who sell themselves.

Pointing out that Prohaba is like yellow journalism everywhere, Nurdinsyam suggested that the only reason the paper gets special attention is because it is in Aceh, and outsiders want to use it to attack Syariah. “Because it happened in Aceh,” he said, “an area that is under scrutiny, an area that is being watched by everyone, it became an opportunity for them to enter and attack Aceh. Who are ‘they’? Media friends, human rights activists. They entered, and the headline was the door they used to enter and attack Syariah.”

The Criminal Code contains at least 40 clauses that can be used against journalists. Although the Press Council is supposed to adjudicate in media disputes… authorities continue to undermine its mandate by bringing defamation charges to the courts.

According to Nurdinsyam, there were even darker forces at play. The attack on Prohaba was not only driven by a desire to menggugat (sue or criticise) Syariah, it was also inspired by outsiders with an international anti-Syariah agenda. Even national media such as Tempo, which had published a cover story critical of the way in which Syariah had been implemented in Aceh, were part of the problem, he said. When outsiders and those with a “secular” agenda such as Human Rights Watch and Tempo got involved, he argued, there was no choice but to establish an organisation that would defend Syariah. This led to the founding of KWPSI, the Caucus of Journalists Who Defend Islamic Syariah. His position is straightforward: the people of Aceh want Syariah, and it is the law:

Together with friends, we made the group in order to create a caucus of journalists who agreed to advocate for the implementation of Syariah Islam in Aceh. I felt that Syariah was facing a challenge from outside, and from our own journalists as well. We are Muslim journalists, and we wanted the decisions of Aceh to be implemented in a proportional way. Meanwhile there are some friends from overseas, like the Human Rights Watch, which protest the implementation of Syariah. But there are already regulations, there are already laws that have already been studied and socialised and received by the public. We wanted the implementation of this in Aceh. And we want the implementation to take place in the way that has already been outlined.[10]

The company man

Yarmen Dinamika has worked at Serambi Indonesia for nearly his entire career, and is now the paper’s managing editor. A friendly man in his early 50s, Yarmen is devoted both to Serambi and to quality writing. Yet he is also very careful to focus on and reinforce Serambi’s view of the case of Putri Erlina.

His recounting is precise:

The night of the occurrence, a young girl named Putri and her friend were in a field called Lapangan Sudirman in Langsa. She was captured by the Wilayatul Hisbah at four in the morning. Indeed at that time in Aceh there is no law that says a woman can’t sleep in a field. But the problem is that she’s in a place that’s not appropriate, in the middle of a field that’s dark. ‘Why are you there?’ they ask.

She says she said that she was intentionally in the field, and ordered there by her germo, her boss. The boss’s name is Kak Dewi. For what? If there is suddenly a man who wants to book her, the transaction will take place there. If he doesn’t like her, in the house of Ms Dewi there is still a stock of other women who are ready to be invited on dates.

According to Yarmen, Putri was taken to the WH office and interviewed, during which she described her profession as being “a comfort woman (wanita penghibur)”. This was then recorded in the Berita Acara Periksaan (BAP) [the official report of the investigation], which Yarmen says she signed.

He continues:

The next morning, at around 8am, the head of the Syariah police for Langsa telephoned a Prohaba journalist. If you all come to the office of WH, there is a woman who was captured at 4am, and she is now being processed.

Next the journalist came, met with Putri, and interviewed her. Putri asked that what she said not be made into a story. Why not? Because she was worried about her older brother. Because when she had gone out at night, she had lied to her brother. She had said she was sleeping at her friend’s house, but when she was captured she was sleeping in a field. So she was afraid.

But if all requests like that were granted, there would not be any articles about sex cases in Aceh. If the Syariah Police have processed it, it will become a story. Now, this Prohaba story quoted her statement in the BAP that she had confessed that she was a whore. So she had confessed, and she had signed.[11]

There is no reason to doubt the truth of what Yarmen says, but, as AJI pointed out in its Syariah News Watch, stories like the one published in Prohaba represent a certain literalist style of reporting on the implementation of Syariah. In Yarmen’s view, Putri had signed a confession, so Prohaba had the right to use the word pelacur. Admitting that it would have been better had the paper used the word tersangka (accused of) or terduga (suspected of), he said that there was otherwise nothing wrong with the story.

Assuming that Putri’s “confession” was obtained fairly, why did the paper not use it in its story? According to Yarmen, who acknowledged that the Press Council ruled that the paper had erred in not including the official report in the story, it was probably because of a lack of space. “We didn’t include it because the story had to be shortened and so the background wasn’t perfect,” he said. “But we couldn’t be mad at our journalist because the background was there in the BAP, and we photocopied it. And yes, if it were to be written again, the research from Langsa should have been included, including the BAP”.[12]

Reporting on Syariah

One of the key issues behind the dispute over the Prohaba story was how the implementation of Syariah was being covered in Aceh. As Nurdinsyam had suggested, there was concern about this, including from organisations outside of Indonesia. One such organisation was the Ford Foundation, which funded a grant to the Alliance of Independent Journalists to monitor reporting. The programme was called “Program Mendorong Media Sehat dalam Pemberitaan Syariat Islam di Aceh,” or a “Programme to Promote Healthy Reporting on Islamic Syariah in Aceh.” The program included forums, trainings, and a bi-monthly publication called Syariah News Watch, which was first published in March 2012, just a few months before the Putri Erlina case occurred.

AJI, or the Alliance of Independent Journalists, was established in 1994, after the banning of Tempo. Standing for independence from political power and voicing a strong “anti-amplop” (anti-envelope)[13] stance, it represented a younger generation of activist journalists who rejected the cosy relations with power that were more typical of the PWI or Indonesian Journalists’ Association. Such relations were typical of Serambi Indonesia, which Serambi journalists and critics alike agree has been the recipient of considerable local government advertising, especially since the 2004 tsunami. Many seasoned journalists resent AJI members as self-righteous upstarts, and some of this rhetoric was reflected in the attacks on both AJI and Syariah News Watch.[14]

Syariah News Watch minced no words in pointing out that many stories about Syariah used vulgar language, ignored the presumption of innocence, and focused largely on women as victims.

AJI Banda Aceh published six issues of the Syariah News Watch. The quality of research they conducted was impressive: quantitative analyses of the types of sources quoted and used, analysis of photos, and textual analysis of stories pertaining to Syariah cases. Syariah News Watch minced no words in pointing out that many stories about Syariah used vulgar language, ignored the presumption of innocence, and focused largely on women as victims. Accounts were one-sided, utilising only sources from the Wilayatul Hisbah and police. Photographs were almost always of women.

Syariah News Watch found Prohaba to be among the worst, if not the worst, violators of the journalistic Code of Ethics.[15] Of the 70 stories published in February 2012 that focused on arrests by the Syariah Police, 10 appeared in Prohaba, with Metro Aceh coming in second with eight stories. The other papers generally had only one or two stories. Of the 10 stories that appeared in Prohaba, nine of them focused on illicit sexual relations.[16]

In some ways, AJI’s findings are not surprising. Yarmen Dinamika explained that since its founding in 2007, Prohaba has reported on crime. Whereas Serambi, the parent company, focuses largely on “politics and sports, education, society and the environment,” surveys showed that what the people of Aceh were really interested in were stories of politics, sports, and crime. “So the decision from my seniors was made,” Yarmen said. “Serambi would continue to be a paper for the middle class and above, while stories about crime—if we did not do them ourselves, they would clearly be done by someone else. The morality was not yet fixed, and so it was better if we did them ourselves.”[17]

Journalism and Islam

Although the principles of journalism may be universal, they are understood and expressed within particular political and cultural contexts. Muslim journalists in Indonesia and Malaysia see many connections between the principles of journalism and the teachings of Islam.[18] The pursuit of truth, the need to verify, even the importance of maintaining independence of power all have parallels in Islam, as does the injunction never to repeat something of a sexual nature about someone else without evidence. For example what Indonesians routinely refer to as “trial by the press” is strikingly similar to Islamic prohibitions against gossip, libel, and other forms of defamation.[19]

In a text on journalism and Islam, Indonesian State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN) Sunan Ampel journalism instructor Faris Khoirul Anam noted that reports of sexual impropriety may not be published until they have been proven in a court of law—even if a confession has been made in front of a journalist.[20] Article 3 of the Code of Ethics states that Indonesian journalists should always check and recheck their information, report news in a balanced way, uphold the principle of the presumption of innocence, and not mix facts with “opinion that passes judgment”. The idea that the press shouldn’t “judge” someone thus bears a strong resemblance to the Islamic injunction against fitnah (slander) or repeating gossip before these accusations have been proven in a court of law.[21]

Given this clear injunction against gossip, how is it possible to defend even the existence of Prohaba? Yarmen Dinamika’s defence of Prohaba and its relationship to Islam is interesting, if somewhat tortured:

Now, the morality that we developed at the time pointed to the Quran. The Quran doesn’t only contain stories of good behaviour, but also of things that are bad, meaning that there are examples of things that you should do, as well as examples of things that you shouldn’t do.

Therefore Prohaba since its very beginning told about social pathologies [drinking, gambling, inappropriate contact between the sexes]. Prohaba could be categorised as a newspaper for what I call SDM—seks, darah, dan mistik (sex, blood, and mysticism).[22]

The founding of KWPSI

Journalists connected with Serambi Indonesia are united in their view that had the Alliance of Independent Journalists simply reported the newspaper to the Press Council, that would have been okay—but that it was wrong of AJI to hold a press conference and accuse Prohaba of causing Putri’s death. This was fitnah (slander), they said. Yarmen, for example, also came up with alternative explanations for why Putri might have killed herself. Perhaps it was murder—it would have been easy enough to enter her small house, and why was she all dressed up and wearing makeup on the day of her death? Or perhaps there was even an unwanted pregnancy. Why else might her father changed his mind and refused to allow an autopsy?[23] Although Yarmen, like Nurdinsyam, is very careful not to say that there was any proof that these alternative explanations might be true, he nevertheless raised them.

For journalists who side with AJI, however, these explanations are konyol, or ridiculous.[24] They point to the note that was found in her bag several days after her death. The note said:

Dad, please forgive me, I caused you shame with everyone. But I swear that I have never sold myself to anyone. That night I just wanted to watch a keyboardist at Langsa; I was just hanging out in a field with my friends.

I don’t know what to do anymore. Just let me look for my own life now. I’m no use anymore… I hope you don’t hate me…. Dad, I’m so sad I can’t meet you, please forgive me. And my brothers too. I love you Dad.[25]

For Taufik Al Mubarak and his friends at AJI, it seemed obvious that Putri had killed herself because she was depressed and under pressure (tertekan) as a result of the story in Prohaba. In their eyes, Serambi was wrong. “Putri was 16 years old,” Taufik said. “And if you are going to call someone a prostitute, you have to have proof, in Islam too! Accusing someone of zina (illicit sexual relations) you need proof.”[26]

When asked about Yarmen and Nurdinsyam’s point that Putri had already confessed to being a prostitute in the BAP or official report, Taufik retorted, “We didn’t make it into an issue whether or not Putri was a prostitute. This is her concern. But accusing of her being a whore, without concrete evidence, this is not permitted.”

“Read the Press Council’s decision,” he added.

For Taufik, it is also clear that what was really at stake was the honour or martabat of Serambi Indonesia. When the journalists who established the Caucus of Journalists Who Defend Islamic Syariah left AJI, what they were really defending was the newspaper, not Islamic Syariah. “It’s like this,” Taufik said. “KWPSI used the religious sentiment to attack AJI. Because people here are the most enthusiastic when they are invited to defend religion. So it was as if what was done by AJI was an attack on Islamic Syariah, but it was not. At AJI there are many who are more pious (lebih alim) than those at Serambi.”


Arif Ramdan, one of the founders of KWPSI, explains that at the beginning, the plan was to establish a kind of advocacy group. “Don’t make news stories that are negative about the qanun [Syariah prohibitions against gambling, the consumption of alcohol, and improper relations between the sexes],” he said. “People who do wrong, violate the qanun, write about that—go ahead! But don’t be negative about Syariah. Things that are wrong, please improve them. But don’t say that Syariah is wrong, too.”[28] According to Arif Ramdan, the establishment of the caucus attracted a lot of attention, including from groups who wanted to use it for more radical ends.[29] He refused these offers, saying “We were founded to raise the consciousness of journalists, so that they would be good and truthful in their reporting. Radical Islam—I didn’t want that.”

Although Arif Rahman said that KWPSI receives no funding from the local government, he acknowledged that it attracts “donations” from Islamic organisations that care about its mission. It also attracts donations from local businesses that would perhaps like to be seen as defenders of Syariah.[30]

Whose Syariah?

Tempo editor Jajang Jamaludin is based in Jakarta. About one week after Putri’s suicide, he, together with Lhokseumawe reporter Imram MA, wrote a story about the case for the magazine’s “Law” section. Among other things, the story noted that there had been rumours that Putri was connected with a germo, or pimp, and that she had “confessed” in a signed statement to the Syariah Police. Observing that neither of these things could be confirmed, Jajang said that they were not relevant to the story anyway.[31]

In addition to a detailed chronology of the girl’s arrest, detention, and death, Tempo’s story pointed to several “odd” aspects of what the police ultimately ruled to be a suicide.[32] Although the magazine’s report mentioned the story in Prohaba, it did not point to it as the cause of her death, concluding instead with a quote from the head of the National Commission on Violence Against Women expressing the hope that Putri would be the last victim of these “repressive regulations.”[33]

Nadya Noor - New Naratif
Nadya Noor

Despite Jajang Jamaludin’s careful construction of the story, Tempo magazine was attacked as “anti-Syariah in “Islamic media” such as Hidayatullah.[34] Jajang, a graduate in politics from the Padjadjaran University in Bandung who has worked at Tempo since 2000, was labelled a disciple of “godfather” Goenawan Mohamad, the founding editor of Tempo. He said that he even received a call on his personal handphone from someone who asked “Are you still a Muslim? Do you still pray?” He said that he had responded “Yes, I am Muslim, but I come from a tradition of tolerance.”[35]

Tempo, which is “cosmopolitan” if not exactly “liberal,” has reported extensively on the implementation of Syariah.[36] A cover story published nearly a year before Putri’s death focused not only on its formal implementation in Aceh but also on its partial implementation in other regions. The magazine pointed out that local bylaws discriminated against women, who are most affected by regulations regarding both dress and behaviour, and the poor. Those who were caned most often, according to the magazine, were those who had violated the qanun that forbids gambling, and these individuals were generally from the lower classes. Tempo quoted Rusydi Ali, the head of the Aceh Syariah Council, as saying “there are never any big fish gamblers who are caned because usually they gamble in Medan, Singapore, or stay in Aceh in private homes or other secret places, so it is difficult to prove.”[37]

Moreover, as Tempo’s sources pointed out, although it is possible to appeal a decision of the Syariah court, most of the people who get caught in raids are either unaware of this or do not have the financial means to hire a lawyer who can defend them. “Because of this,” the magazine concluded, “there have been many accusations of unfairness in the implementation of the qanun, which only sweep up the little guy. [The poor] tend to be resigned to their punishment. Meanwhile, the rich have more of an opportunity to escape the legal net because they are willing to pay for an expensive lawyer.”[38]

Thus it was not only those from outside Aceh who want to “attack” Syariah. Indeed, as The Jakarta Post editor Nezar Patria said, although “everyone in Aceh supports Syariah” there is plenty of criticism as to how it has been implemented.[39]

The Press Council’s decision, AJI’s apology

The case of Prohaba was settled quickly. The Press Council issued its findings on Prohaba, Aceh Tribune News (the online version of Serambi and Prohaba), and Waspada on 25 October 2012. It found that all three publications had violated the journalists’ Code of Ethics, ruling that Prohaba, Aceh Tribune News, and Waspada had each violated Article 3 that states “Indonesian journalists always test information, report in a balanced way, don’t mix fact and judgmental opinion (opini yang menghakimi), and apply the principle of innocent until proven guilty.”[40]

Meanwhile, AJI apologised to Serambi, and settled out of court. The decision to do so did not sit well with several members of the organisation, who said privately that they were “disappointed” and “did not agree.” The decision to apologise had been a pragmatic one—there was considerable concern that if an agreement was not reached, Taufik Al Mubarak would go to jail.


In the case of Prohaba newspaper versus the Alliance of Independent Journalists, everyone involved claimed to support Syariah, and was 100% convinced of the righteousness of their position. While critics of Serambi Indonesia argued that the establishment of KWPSI had more to do with defending the honour of the newspaper than it did with defending Islamic Syariah, its defenders were equally convinced that Syariah was under attack.

There was considerable self-interest at stake in each of the positions outlined. Although “everyone” in Aceh may support Syariah, Syariah means different things to different people, and even those who follow Syariah in their own lives may object to positive law regulating behaviour for themselves and others. The case of Putri Erlina suggests that divisions within the journalists’ community over competing ethical standards reflect a larger controversy within the public sphere, and that as of yet there is no clear consensus on the implementation of Islamic criminal bylaws in Aceh. In this way, the discussion of press ethics resembles the discussion of Syariah, something that everyone formally “supports,” but which is still highly contested in everyday practice. This was most evident in my interviews: everyone I spoke to invoked Syariah to defend or justify an ethical position that he or she had already reached, but in many cases that position had nothing at all to do with Islam.

A longer version of this article appeared in the journal Indonesia, Vol. 106 (October 2018): pp. 35-51.

Article: Janet Steele
Illustrations: Nadya Noor


[1]For an overview of Syariah in Aceh, see Michael Feener, Shari‛a and Social Engineering: The Implementation of Islamic Law in Contemporary Aceh, Indonesia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), xi, and David Kloos, Becoming Better Muslims: Religious Authority and Ethical Improvement in Aceh, Indonesia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017),1.
[2]“Dua Pelacur ABG Dibeureukah WH.” Aceh Tribune News, 4 September, 2012,
<>. Aceh Tribune News is the online version of Prohaba and Serambi Indonesia.
[3]Taufik Al Mubarak, interview, 22 December, 2017.
[4]“Prohaba Lapor Plh Ketua AJI ke Polisi,” Aceh Tribune News, 26 September, 2012,
[5]Waspada had stated that Putri came from a “broken home” (English in the original) and “plunged into the black world because of economic pressure.” Pernyataan Penilaian dan Rekomendasi (PPR) Dewan Pers Nomor: 15/PPR-DP/X/2012, Pernyataan Penilaian dan Rekomendasi (PPR) Dewan Pers Nomor: 16/PPR-DP/X/2012, and Pernyataan Penilaian dan Rekomendasi (PPR) Dewan Pers Nomor: 17/PPR-DP/X/2012.
[6]Press Council working group expert Christiana Chelsia Chan explained that Medan was chosen for logistical reasons—Medan features many more flights and hotels than does Banda Aceh—and to save money. Interview, 27 July 2018.
[7]Leo Batubara, email to author, 23 October, 2007. For a history of the 1999 Press Law, see Janet Steele, “The Making of the 1999 Indonesian Press Law.” Indonesia 94: (2012), 1-22.
[8], accessed 6 June 2019.
[9]Nurdinsyam, interview, 22 December 2017.
[11]Yarmen Dinamika, interview, 19 December 2017.
[13]Sources hoping for favourable coverage will often give envelopes of money to journalists. AJI has taken a strong stand against this practice.
[14]Former Tempo editor Bambang Harymurti, himself a founder of AJI, and Leo Batubara believe that bad feelings between AJI and PWI underlay the conflict between AJI and Serambi Indonesia. Others confirmed this, but as some individuals, such as Yarmen Dinamika, were members of both organizations, this was impossible to prove. For a history of AJI, see Janet Steele, Wars Within: The Story of Tempo, an Independent Magazine in Soeharto’s Indonesia (Jakarta: Equinox Publishing, 2005), 254-7.
[15]The three worst offenders were Prohaba, Rakyat Aceh, and Metro Aceh, but Prohaba was singled out for vulgar language. Riza Nasser, “Analysis Isu Syariat di Media: Luput Menulis Proses Hukum,” Shari‛a News Watch, 1, no. 1 (2012): 6.
[16]Riza Nasser, “Analysis Isu Syariat di Media,” 7.
[17]Yarmen Dinamika, interview, 19 December 2017.
[18]See Janet Steele, Mediating Islam: Cosmopolitan Journalisms in Muslim Southeast Asia (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018), 11-15.
[19]Janet Steele, “Trial by the Press: An Examination of Journalism, Ethics, and Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia,” The International Journal of Press/Politics 18, no. 3 (2013): 342–359.
[20]Faris K. Anam, Fikih Jurnalistik: Etika & Kebebasan Pers Menurut Islam, Jakarta: Pustaka Al-Kautsar, 2009), 57.
[21]“Wartawan Indonesia selalu menguji informasi, memberitakan secara berimbang, tidak mencampurkan fakta dan opini yang menghakimi, serta menerapkan asas praduga tak bersalah.” Kode Etik Journalistik, accessed 6 June 2019. See also Steele, “Trial by the Press,” 351-2.
[22]Yarmen Dinamika, interview, 19 December 2017.
[23]Yarmen Dinamika, interview, 22 December 2017.
[24]Uzair, interview 22 December 2017.
[25]Putri was obviously agitated when she wrote the note, and also used a lot of slang. The translation is mine. Here is the original:
“Ayah…, maafin Putri ya yah, Putri udah malu-maluin ayah sama semua orang. Tapi Putri berani sumpah kalau Putri gak pernah jual diri sama orang. malam itu putri cuma mau nonton kibot (keyboard/organ tunggal-red) di Langsa, terus Putri duduk di lapangan begadang sama kawan-kawan Putri.
Sekarang Putri gak tau harus gimna lagi, biarlah Putri pigi cari hidup sendiri, Putri gak ada gunanya lagi sekarang. Ayah jangan cariin Putri ya..!!, nanti Putri juga pulang jumpai ayah sama Aris (adiknya). Biarlah Putri belajar hidup mandiri, Putri harap ayah gak akan benci sama Putri, Ayah sayang kan sama Putri…???”
Putri sedih kali gak bisa jumpa Ayah, maafin Putri ayah… Kakak sayang sama Aris, maafin kakak ya… (Putri sayang Ayah)” “Malu Dituduh Pelacur oleh Polisi Syariah Aceh, Putri Memilih Bunuh Diri,” accessed 15 April 2018.
[26]Taufik Al Mubarak, interview, 22 December 2017.
[28]Arif Ramdan, interview 30 July 2018.
[29]Arif Ramdan was somewhat cagey about explaining what he meant by this, saying only “They telephoned me each morning. From Solo. When I say Solo, you know, right? I had to say ‘the caucus is not like that, we are not a gerakan aksi [action movement].’” Home to many militant groups, Solo has been described as Indonesia’s “radical heartland.” I Made Sentana and Tom Wright, “A New Generation of Terrorists Graduates in Indonesia’s Radical Heartland,” Wall Street Journal, 17 January 2016.
[30]One such group was Bank Aceh. Uzair, the CEO of Aceh’s Radio Antero, pointed out that many businesses in Aceh would be willing to give money to KWPSI in order to be recognized for their support of Syariah. As proof, he showed me a handsome black jacket emblazoned with the KWPSI logo on one side and the words “Bank Aceh Shariah” on the other.
[31]Jajang Jamaludin, interview 11 January 2018.
[32]These included the way in which her knees were bent and her feet touching the floor, and the fact the beam from which she was hanging was only a few inches above her head.
[33]Jajang Jamaludin and Imran MA.,“Surat Terakhir Dari Putri,” Tempo, 17 September 2012. Goenawan Mohammad’s Catatan Pinggir of 17 September 2012, entitled “Leda,” was published “in memory of Putri, 16 years old, who killed herself after being called a prostitute by the Syariah police in Langsa, Aceh.
[34]“Tulisan Tempo yang Menyakiti Umat Islam,”, 12 October 2012. accessed 12 January 2018.
[35]Jajang Jamaludin, interview 11 January 2018.
[36]Steele, Mediating Islam, chapter 5.
[37]“Tajam ke Bawah, Tumpul ke Atas,” Tempo, 29 August 2011.
[38]“Tercoreng Dakwaan Mesum,” Tempo, 29 August 2011.
[39]Nezar Patria, interview, 4 January 2018. Nezar is also the son of Serambi‘s publisher
[40]Pernyataan Penilaian dan Rekomendasi (PPR) Dewan Pers Nomor: 15/PPR-DP/X/2012, Pernyataan Penilaian dan Rekomendasi (PPR) Dewan Pers Nomor: 16/PPR-DP/X/2012, and Pernyataan Penilaian dan Rekomendasi (PPR) Dewan Pers Nomor: 17/PPR-DP/X/2012.

Janet Steele

Janet Steele is professor of journalism at the George Washington University. A frequent visitor to Southeast Asia, she divides her time between Washington DC and Jakarta, where she teaches regular courses on narrative journalism. Her most recent book is “Mediating Islam, Cosmopolitan Journalisms in Muslim Southeast Asia.”

Nadya Noor

Nadya is a full-time illustrator/graphic designer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She pours colours into editorial illustration, doodles, comics, merchandise—you name it! You can find her art on Instagram @nadya.noor

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