This week’s changes are a win for Facebook, Google and the government — but what was lost along the way?



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Rob Nicholls, UNSW

After almost a year of heated discussion about the News Media Bargaining Code, there will shortly be a new law of the land – one that’s unlikely to be applied to the platforms it was intended to reign in. But that’s not to say it hasn’t done its job.

With some final tweaks expected to the draft legislation, Facebook on Tuesday announced it would restore news for Australian users and strike up commercial agreements with local publishers. It signed its first deal with Seven West media yesterday.

Google has already done deals with News Corp, Nine Fairfax, Seven West Media, The Guardian and regional news company ACM, turning back on its initial threat to pull Google Search from Australia.

Meanwhile, Facebook threatened to stop providing Australians access to news — and did (while also blocking domestic violence helplines, children’s cancer charities and the Royal Australian College of Physicians).

In return, the federal government said it would stop all advertising campaigns on the platform. Interestingly, it’s this move which most likely “assisted” the recent negotiated outcome with Facebook.

The amendments

The changes made to the code — other than the opportunity to sell advertising to the Commonwealth again — were small, but important. It’s worth remembering the code’s aim was to balance out the bargaining imbalance between big tech platforms and news media businesses.

Essentially, it provides a mechanism to force a deal when a commercial outcome can’t be reached voluntarily. The code is mandatory, since the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) took the view the platforms would not otherwise get to a commercial offer, let alone a commercial settlement.

As set out by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, there were four changes made that have met Facebook’s needs:

  1. before a digital platform is made subject to the code by being “designated”, the minister must first take into account whether it has reached commercial agreements with news media businesses

  2. the government must give at least one month’s notice of designation to any platform it intends to make subject to the code

  3. the non-discrimination provisions (crafted as an anti-avoidance mechanism) will not be triggered in respect to remuneration amounts or commercial outcomes that arise in the course of usual business practice

  4. final offer arbitration will be a last resort and should be preceded by good faith mediation, provided this lasts no longer than two months.




Read more:
Feel like breaking up with Facebook? Maybe it’s time for a social media spring clean


A major change?

The above amendments made by the government are not major, in terms of changing the scope of the News Media Bargaining Code. However, they do include some important clarifications regarding how the code will operate.

Both Google and Facebook were very concerned the approach of “final offer arbitration” would adversely affect them. In this, if a deal couldn’t be struck, both the platform and media business would have to present their offers and defer to an arbitrator to choose one.

Google and Facebook initially argued for “commercial arbitration”, where the arbitrator acts with more discretion. Commercial arbitration tends to favour the party with the most information or bargaining power.

The compromise of requiring good faith mediation before any compulsory arbitration (whether commercial or final offer arbitration) is a classic dispute resolution approach.

Win some, lose some

The News Media Bargaining Code has changed in a way that is a compromise, but hasn’t lost its original intention. The process of negotiating changes to the code has revealed the private values of Facebook, Google and any similar parties that could be impacted by the code.

The exposure draft, the introduction of the Bill, the Senate committee and Facebook’s petulant actions: all have acted to identify a financial outcome for each of Google, Facebook and the Australian news publishers.

The process has been a classic, but painful, exchange of information that would otherwise have been held close to the players’ respective chests.

For Google, it has shown Google Search must remain untouched, even if this means forking out millions in a matter of days. For Facebook, it has demonstrated that rapidly changing social media offerings (such as trying to remove news in Australia) can’t be done without major complications.

It may be too soon to judge whether Facebook’s approach of taking its lobbying to the brink worked in its favour, or to its detriment. The platform’s first interactions with the new UK Digital Markets Unit (a regulatory regime targeted at big tech firms) will likely shed some light.

And finally, the ACCC can claim it was right in its initial recommendation; after a long drought, there will soon be money flowing to public interest journalism.




Read more:
Why Google is now funnelling millions into media outlets, as Facebook pulls news for Australia


Who pays?

The intention of the News Media Bargaining Code was to create an environment where commercial deals would be struck between the platforms and news media businesses in Australia.

Now, under several deals, Google and Facebook will pay Australian news media businesses tens of millions of dollars each year for locally created content.

According to an Australian Financial Review report, Facebook Australia paid a little under A$17 million in tax in 2019.
Shutterstock

There’s also a reasonable expectation regional news businesses will receive funds in exchange for regional news — although a clear standard offer is yet to be made by the platforms.

This development will not change the inevitable shift of the news business model to a largely digital environment. But it does balance the value proposition between news creation and news curation.

It has also made clear to Facebook, Google and news media businesses that they exist and operate in a symbiosis. The status of this relationship? Well, it’s complicated.




Read more:
Google’s and Facebook’s loud appeal to users over the news media bargaining code shows a lack of political power


The Conversation


Rob Nicholls, Associate professor in regulation and governance, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The old news business model is broken: making Google and Facebook pay won’t save journalism


Amanda Lotz, Queensland University of Technology

The federal government is talking tough about making Google and Facebook pay Australian news businesses for linking to, or featuring, these publishers’ content.

The digital platforms have been talking equally tough. Facebook is threatening to remove Australian news stories and Google says it will shut off search to Australia if the government pushes ahead with its “mandatory bargaining code”.

The code is meant to help alleviate the revenue crisis facing news publishers. Over the past two decades they have made deep cuts to newsrooms. Scores of local print papers have become “digital only” or been shut down completely.




Read more:
Digital-only local newspapers will struggle to serve the communities that need them most


If legislated, the code will require the platforms to negotiate payments to news publishers, as well as disclose changes in algorithms affecting traffic to news sites.

But the code is unlikely to do much to fix the crisis faced by journalism in the internet age. It isn’t even a band-aid on the problem.

The traditional commercial news business model is broken beyond repair. If the government wants to save the social benefit of public-interest journalism, it must look elsewhere.

Newspapers didn’t sell news, but readers

To understand why the commercial news model is so broken, we first need to recognise what the primary business of commercial news media has been: attracting an audience that can be sold to advertisers.

Newspapers attracted readers with news and feature journalism that provided public value, but also information of interest such as weather forecasts, sports scores, stock prices, TV and radio guides and comics. Readers even sought out papers for their advertisements – in particular the “classifieds” for jobs, cars and real estate.

Before the internet the newspaper was the only place to access much of this information. This broad bundle of content attracted a wide range of readers, which the economics of newspapers – particularly the cost of producing the journalism – required.

Why the business model is broken

Internet technologies introduced two changes that have dismantled the newspaper business model.

They offered new and better ways to connect buyers and sellers, pulling advertiser spending away from newspapers. More than 70% of revenue for a typical daily newspaper came from advertising. Before 2000 print media attracted nearly 60% of Australian advertiser dollars, according to an analysis for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms Inquiry. By 2017 it was just 12%.


Australian advertising expenditure by media format and digital platform


Internet technologies also provided better ways to access the non-journalism information that had made the bundled paper valuable to a mass of readers.

Readers also now access news in many other places, through news apps, aggregators and social media feeds such as Twitter, Reddit, Apple News, Flipboard and many others, including Facebook and Google. Research by the University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre published in 2019 found just 30% of Australian news consumers accessed online news directly from news publishers’ websites.

The bargaining code doesn’t solve the main problem

If Google and Facebook are “to blame” for news publishers’ malaise, it is not in the way the bargaining code suggests. Separate from their linking to, or featuring, these publishers’ content, the digital platforms are just more effective vehicles for advertisers seeking to buy consumers’ attention. They serve ads based on consumer interests or in relation to a specific search.

The simple fact is news publishers’ core content is not that important to the platforms’ profitability.

Research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism during the 2019 UK general election – tracking 1,711 people aged 18-65 across mobile and desktop devices for six weeks – found news took up just 3% of their time online (about 16 minutes and 22 visits to news sites a week).

So if stories from Australian news outlets disappeared from Facebook or Google search results, it would barely make a scratch on their appeal to advertisers.




Read more:
It’s not ‘fair’ and it won’t work: an argument against the ACCC forcing Google and Facebook to pay for news


Save journalism, not commercial publishers

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms Inquiry has rightly noted the revenue crisis has crippled commercial provision of public-interest journalism “that performs a critical role in the effective functioning of democracy at all levels of government”.

But the core of the problem is that funding such journalism through advertising is no longer viable. Other solutions are needed – locally and nationally – to ensure its survival.




Read more:
Web’s inventor says news media bargaining code could break the internet. He’s right — but there’s a fix


Commercial news organisations no longer offer value to advertisers. Instead of searching for ways to make an obsolete business solvent, efforts should focus on alternative ways to fund public-interest journalism.

More funding for independent public broadcasters is one solution, and incentives for philanthropic funding and non-profit journalism organisations are proving successful in other countries.

It’s a global problem. To solve the crisis in Australia will require focusing on the core problem and thinking bigger than a bargaining code.


For transparency, please note The Conversation has also made a submission to the Senate inquiry regarding the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.The Conversation

Amanda Lotz, Professor of Media Studies, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If Google does pull its search engine out of Australia, there are alternatives



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Gianluca Demartini, The University of Queensland

The Australian government’s push to make Google pay news organisations for linking to their content has seen the search giant threaten to pull out of Australia.

Google Australia’s managing director Mel Silva said if the government’s proposal goes ahead, “we would have no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison pushed back saying he won’t respond to “threats”. Even the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia says Google needs “strong and stringent” regulation because of its monopoly on searching the web.

What if Google pulls out?

Google’s proposal to make Google Search unavailable in Australia means we would need to search the web using other systems and tools. If this really happens, we could no longer go to google.com and google.com.au to search the web.




Read more:
It’s not ‘fair’ and it won’t work: an argument against the ACCC forcing Google and Facebook to pay for news


It is important to note that Google is not just web search. Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc also runs key web portals such as YouTube, and productivity tools such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs and Google Maps (which actually started in Australia). Those services are not going to be removed from the Australian market, even if web search does get pulled out.

Online advertising is another sector in which Google is the market leader and where it makes money. Pulling Google web search out from Australia does not mean businesses would no longer be able to advertise using Google’s services.

But with no Google Search here, those adverts would no longer appear ahead of any other search results and be visited by Australian users.

A Google Search result showing an ad for The Conversation ahead of any search results.
Google Search places paid advertising ahead of any search results.
Google.com/screenshot

Businesses would still be able to put their adverts on other Australian websites that use the Google Ads service.

The issue with this scenario is that Google’s key competitive advantage is the ability to access data from people using its search services. Pulling web search out from the Australian market would mean Google missing out on that data from people in Australia.

The alternatives to Google

Google is the dominant search engine in Australia — it has 94% of the web search market in Australia — but there are other search services.

The second most popular search engine in Australia is Bing, developed by Microsoft and often integrated into other Microsoft products such as its Windows operating system and Office tools.

Another less popular search option is Yahoo, which also offers its own news and email service.

Other alternatives include niche search engines that offer unique tools with special features.

For example, DuckDuckGo is a search engine that has recently risen in popularity thanks to a commitment to protecting its users’ privacy.

The DuckDuckGo homepage
DuckDuckGo is gaining support.
DuckDuckGo/Screen shot

Contrary to the web search products from Google and Microsoft, DuckDuckGo does not store its users’ search queries or track their interactions with the system.

The quality of DuckDuckGo’s search results has improved over time, and is now comparable to that of the most popular search engines.

It says it now processes a daily average of more than 90 million search queries, up from just over 51 million the same time last year.

Despite not drawing on users’ data to refine its search algorithms, the technology behind DuckDuckGo and other smaller players is based on the same machine-learning methods that others are using.

Search the web, save the planet

Another interesting and recent proposal of an alternative web search engine is Ecosia. This system is unique as it focuses on sustainability and positive climate impact.

Its mission is to reinvest the income generated by search advertisements (the same business model Google Search is using) to plant trees in key areas around the world.

So far, it says it has 15 million users and has contributed to planting more than 100 million trees, about 1.3 every second.

Will Google really abandon Australia?

Tim Berners-Lee, widely regarded as the inventor of the web, has pointed out that the idea of asking web platforms to pay to post links runs counter to his fundamental concept.




Read more:
Web’s inventor says news media bargaining code could break the internet. He’s right — but there’s a fix


That said, it is also unfair for a search engine to make money using content that others have created.

It is also true that most of Google’s revenue already comes from asking others to pay for links on the web. This is how Google’s online advertising works: Google Ads makes advertisers pay for every impression users get or click users make to navigate to the advertised web page.

If users end up buying the advertised product, Google gets an even higher payment.

More likely than Google pulling out of the Australian market, the government and the search giant should diplomatically find a compromise in which Google still provides its web search product in Australia and there will be a return to news organisations for Google making use of their content.The Conversation

Gianluca Demartini, Associate professor, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Web’s inventor says news media bargaining code could break the internet. He’s right — but there’s a fix


Tama Leaver, Curtin University

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has raised concerns that Australia’s proposed News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code could fundamentally break the internet as we know it.

His concerns are valid. However, they could be addressed through minor changes to the proposed code.

How could the code break the web?

The news media bargaining code aims to level the playing field between media companies and online giants. It would do this by forcing Facebook and Google to pay Australian news businesses for content linked to, or featured, on their platforms.

In a submission to the Senate inquiry about the code, Berners-Lee wrote:

Specifically, I am concerned that the Code risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online. […] The ability to link freely — meaning without limitations regarding the content of the linked site and without monetary fees — is fundamental to how the web operates.

Currently, one of the most basic underlying principles of the web is there is no cost involved in creating a hypertext link (or simply a “link”) to any other page or object online.

When Berners-Lee first devised the World Wide Web in 1989, he effectively gave away the idea and associated software for free, to ensure nobody would or could charge for using its protocols.

He argues the news media bargaining code could set a legal precedent allowing someone to charge for linking, which would let the genie out of the bottle — and plenty more attempts to charge for linking to content would appear.

If the precedent were set that people could be charged for simply linking to content online, it’s possible the underlying principle of linking would be disrupted.

As a result, there would likely be many attempts by both legitimate companies and scammers to charge users for what is currently free.

While supporting the “right of publishers and content creators to be properly rewarded for their work”, Berners-Lee asks the code be amended to maintain the principle of allowing free linking between content.




Read more:
Google News favours mainstream media. Even if it pays for Australian content, will local outlets fall further behind?


Google and Facebook don’t just link to content

Part of the issue here is Google and Facebook don’t just collect a list of interesting links to news content. Rather the way they find, sort, curate and present news content adds value for their users.

They don’t just link to news content, they reframe it. It is often in that reframing that advertisements appear, and this is where these platforms make money.

For example, this link will take you to the original 1989 proposal for the World Wide Web. Right now, anyone can create such a link to any other page or object on the web, without having to pay anyone else.

But what Facebook and Google do in curating news content is fundamentally different. They create compelling previews, usually by offering the headline of a news article, sometimes the first few lines, and often the first image extracted.

For instance, here is a preview Google generates when someone searches for Tim Berners-Lee’s Web proposal:

Results page for the Google Search 'tim berners lee www proposal'.
This is a screen capture of the results page for the Google Search: ‘tim berners lee www proposal’.
Google

Evidently, what Google returns is more of a media-rich, detailed preview than a simple link. For Google’s users, this is a much more meaningful preview of the content and better enables them to decide whether they’ll click through to see more.

Another huge challenge for media businesses is that increasing numbers of users are taking headlines and previews at face value, without necessarily reading the article.

This can obviously decrease revenue for news providers, as well as perpetuate misinformation. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons Twitter began asking users to actually read content before retweeting it.

A fairly compelling argument, then, is that Google and Facebook add value for consumers via the reframing, curating and previewing of content — not just by linking to it.

Can the code be fixed?

Currently in the code, the section concerning how platforms are “Making content available” lists three ways content is shared:

  1. content is reproduced on the service
  2. content is linked to
  3. an extract or preview is made available.

Similar terms are used to detail how users might interact with content.

Extract showing the way 'Making content available' is defined in the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020
The News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code 2020 outlines three main ways by which platforms make news content available.
Australian Government

If we accept most of the additional value platforms provide to their users is in curating and providing previews of content, then deleting the second element (which just specifies linking to content) would fix Berners-Lee’s concerns.

It would ensure the use of links alone can’t be monetised, as has always been true on the web. Platforms would still need to pay when they present users with extracts or previews of articles, but not when they only link to it.

Since basic links are not the bread and butter of big platforms, this change wouldn’t fundamentally alter the purpose or principle of creating a more level playing field for news businesses and platforms.




Read more:
It’s not ‘fair’ and it won’t work: an argument against the ACCC forcing Google and Facebook to pay for news


In its current form, the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code could put the underlying principles of the world wide web in jeopardy. Tim Berners-Lee is right to raise this point.

But a relatively small tweak to the code would prevent this, It would allow us to focus more on where big platforms actually provide value for users, and where the clearest justification lies in asking them to pay for news content.


For transparency, it should be noted The Conversation has also made a submission to the Senate inquiry regarding the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.The Conversation

Tama Leaver, Professor of Internet Studies, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is news worth a lot or a little? Google and Facebook want to have it both ways


Tim Dwyer, University of Sydney

Executives from Google and Facebook have told a Senate committee they are prepared to take drastic action if Australia’s news media bargaining code, which would force the internet giants to pay news publishers for linking to their sites, comes into force.

Google would have “no real choice” but to cut Australian users off entirely from its flagship search engine, the company’s Australian managing director Mel Silva told the committee. Facebook representatives in turn said they would remove links to news articles from the newsfeed of Australian users if the code came into effect as it currently stands.




Read more:
Expect delays and power plays: Google and Facebook brace as news media bargaining code is set to become law


In response, the Australian government shows no sign of backing down, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg both saying they won’t respond to threats.

So what’s going on here? Are Google and Facebook really prepared to pull services from their Australian users rather than hand over some money to publishers under the bargaining code?

Is news valuable to Facebook and Google?

Facebook claims news is of little real value to its business. It doesn’t make money from news directly, and claims that for an average Australian user less than 5% of their newsfeed is made up of links to Australian news.

But this is hard to square with other information. In 2020, the University of Canberra’s Digital News Report found some 52% of Australians get news via social media, and the number is growing. Facebook also boasts of its investments in news via deals with publishers and new products such as Facebook News.

Google likewise says it makes little money from news, while at the same time investing heavily in news products like News Showcase.

So while links to news may not be direct advertising money-spinners for Facebook or Google, both see the presence of news as an important aspect of audience engagement with their products.

On their own terms

While both companies are prepared to give some money to news publishers, they want to make deals on their own terms. But Google and Facebook are two of the largest and most profitable companies in history – and each holds far more bargaining power than any news publisher. The news media bargaining code sets out to undo this imbalance.

What’s more, Google and Facebook don’t appear to want to accept the unique social role of news, and public interest journalism in particular. Nor do they recognise they might be involved somehow in the decline of the news business over the past decade or two, instead pointing the finger at impersonal shifts in advertising technology.

The media bargaining code being introduced is far too systematic for them to want to accept it. They would rather pick and choose commercial agreements with “genuine commercial consideration”, and not be bound by a one-size-fits-all set of arbitration rules.




Read more:
Changing the rules to control monopolies could see the end of Facebook domination


A history of US monopolies

Google and Facebook dominate web search and social media, respectively, in ways that echo the great US monopolies of the past: rail in the 19th century, then oil and later telecommunications in the 20th. All these industries became fundamental forms of capitalist infrastructure for economic and social development. And all these monopolies required legislation to break them up in the public interest.

It’s unsurprising that the giant ad-tech media platforms don’t want to follow the rules, but they must acknowledge that their great wealth and power come with a moral responsibility to society. Making them face up to that responsibility will require government intervention.

Online pioneers Vint Cerf (now VP and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google) and Tim Berners-Lee (“inventor of the World Wide Web”) have also made submissions to the Senate committee advocating on behalf of the corporations. They made high-minded claims that the code will break the “free and open” internet.




Read more:
Web’s inventor says news media bargaining code could break the internet. He’s right — but there’s a fix


But today’s internet is hardly free and open: for most users “the internet” is huge corporate platforms like Google and Facebook. And those corporations don’t want Australian senators interfering with their business model.

Independent senator Rex Patrick hit the nail on the head when he asked why Google wouldn’t admit the fundamental issue was about revenue, rather than technical detail or questions of principle.

How seriously should we take threats to leave the Australian market?

Google and Facebook are prepared to go along with the Senate committee’s processes, so long as they can modify the arrangement. The don’t want to be seen as uncooperative.

The threat to leave (or as Facebook’s Simon Milner put it, the “explanation” of why they would be forced to do so) is their worst-case scenario. It seems likely they would risk losing significant numbers of users if they did so, or at least having them much less engaged – and hence producing less advertising revenue.

Google has already run small-scale experiments to test removing Australian news from search. This may be a demonstration that the threat to withdraw from Australia is serious, or at least, serious brinkmanship.

People know news is important, that it shapes their interactions with the world – and provides meaning and helps them navigate their lives. So who would Australians blame if Google and Facebook really do follow through? The government or the friendly tech giants they see every day? That’s harder to know.


For transparency, please note The Conversation has also made a submission to the Senate inquiry regarding the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.The Conversation

Tim Dwyer, Associate Professor, Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Iran: Latest Persecution News


The link below is to an article that reports on a new Islamic penal code that sentences ‘apostates’ to death.

For more visit:
http://www.christiantelegraph.com/issue17264.html

Persecution News: What was Missed While on My Break – Part 4


The following are articles from Compass Direct News from the period I was on my break:

 

Light Sentences for Attack on Christians in Indonesia Condemned


Prosecutors’ refusal to file felony charges said to encourage more violence.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 10 (CDN) — Human rights and Christian leaders said a West Java court’s light sentence for Islamic extremists who injured a church pastor and an elder will encourage more violence and religious intolerance.

After those involved in the Sept. 12, 2010 clubbing of the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak and the stabbing of elder Hasian Lumbantoruan Sihombing of the Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) in Ciketing received sentences of only five to seven months, the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace released a statement asserting that the judges’ panel was acting under pressure from Muslim extremists.

“The public will think that violence, intolerance, and obstruction of worship are part of their religious worship and duties,” the institute stated regarding the Feb. 24 sentences.

After prosecutors decided to file minor charges citing “insufficient evidence” for assault charges, the judges issued verdicts that have injured people’s sense of justice, and the light sentences set a “rotten” precedent for strengthening the rule of law in Indonesia, according to the institute.

“Specifically, the verdict neither is a deterrent nor does it educate the public that violent acts in the name of religion are serious matters,” according to the Setara statement.

Saor Siagian, attorney for the church, told Compass that the facts of the case had shown that the assailants should have been charged with joint assault under Section 170 of Indonesia’s penal code, which could have resulted in sentences of five to nine years. Instead, prosecutors opted to charge them only with maltreatment under Section 351.

The alleged planner of the attack, Murhali Barda, head of the Bekasi chapter of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), received a sentence of only five months and 15 days for “disorderly conduct” (Section 335) even though he should have been prosecuted for incitement and joint assault, Siagian said.

“The trial brought to light facts that pointed toward incitement by Murhali Barda via Facebook, text messages, and orders to the defendants to attack the congregation of HKBP on Sept. 12, 2010 at Ciketing,” said Siagian. “If he had been charged with Section 170 he would have been facing a five-to-nine-year sentence, and Section 160 [incitement] carries a six-year sentence. These are both felonies.”

Judges of the State Court in Bekasi, West Java handed down a seven-month sentence to Adji Ahmad Faisal, who stabbed church elder Sihombing; the prosecutor had asked for sentence of 10 months. Ade Firman, who clubbed Pastor Simanjuntak hard enough to send her to the hospital for treatment, was given a six-month sentence; prosecutors had requested an eight-month sentence. Two under-age defendants were found guilty and turned over to their parents.

Along with Barda of the FPI, eight other defendants received sentences of five months and 15 days: Ismail, Dede Tri Sutrisna, Panca Rano, Khaerul Anwar, Nunu Nurhadi, Roy Karyadi, Kiki Nurdiansyah, Suprianto and one identified only as Ismail; prosecutors had asked for six-month sentences.

During the trial, 100 members of the FPI demonstrated in front of the courthouse, demanding that Barda and the others be immediately released. As each sentence was read out, the demonstrators shouted “Allahu Akbar [God is greater].”

The lawyer for Barda, Shalih Mangara Sitompul, said the verdicts brought about peace between both parties. His client was found guilty of incidents that took place on Aug. 1 and 8, 2010, he said, questioning why the Sept. 12 attack became the basis for criminal prosecution as Barda did not even encounter Pastor Simanjuntak on that date.

Sitompul said he would appeal the verdict.

Pastor Simanjuntak said the light sentences showed that the state was unable to fully enforce the law.

“This country is more afraid of the masses than standing for justice,” she said. “That’s what happened in the state court in Bekasi. With heavy hearts we accept the verdict.”

The stabbing victim, Sihombing, said that he was not surprised by the light sentences.

“The verdicts were not just, but I don’t know what else to do,” he said. “I’ve just got to accept things.”

Indonesia is a country that follows the rule of law, he said, and therefore it is not right to give a light sentence for stabbing.

“Even so, as a Christian and elder of the congregation, I have forgiven the person who attacked me,” he said.

Attorney Siagian said the sentences will fail to act as a deterrent.

“It passively encourages future violence in the name of religion by radical groups against minorities – not only against the HKBP church, but also against citizens in other areas,” he said. “Also, the verdict shows that the judge sides with those who committed violent acts in the name of religion, and it is a threat to pluralism and diversity in Indonesia.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan


Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News