Privacy rights, the other victim in Indonesia’s latest celebrity prostitution scandal | Opinion

Police and the media have already confirmed that suspects VL and AS, who were arrested in Surabaya on Saturday, were Vanessa Angel (L) and Avriellya Shaqila. Photos: Instagram
Police and the media have already confirmed that suspects VL and AS, who were arrested in Surabaya on Saturday, were Vanessa Angel (L) and Avriellya Shaqila. Photos: Instagram

In the early days of 2019, the news story that is currently dominating the Indonesian media is yet another celebrity prostitution scandal (one of which seems to hit the country once a year or so), this time involving an actress named Vanessa Angel and a model, Avriellya Shaqila, who were arrested by police in Surabaya on Saturday for their alleged involvement in a highly lucrative prostitution ring.

(Read: ​The tale of a pimp and her celebrity prostitutes in Jakarta – in the 1970s)

Indonesian news sites are filled with wall-to-wall coverage of the lurid details of the case and the two women’s arrest, all prominently displaying the women’s identities. The standard procedure for the Indonesian police is to not reveal anything but the initials of suspects in a criminal case, which often leaves the media having to play celebrity-guess-who. But in this case, Vanessa’s identity was revealed by none other than East Java Police Spokesman Frans Barung Mangera on the very day of her arrest in the province’s capital of Surabaya.

That, of course, was a green light to the media to confirm the women’s name to the public, allowing them to skirt Article 5 of Indonesia’s journalism ethics code which says that journalists are not allowed to mention and/or publish the identities of victims in certain cases a susila case — i.e. those related to morality, including sexual abuse and prostitution. In this case, the media can claim the police already tacitly gave permission for their identities to be confirmed to the public by announcing it themselves.

According to Indonesian law, the act of prostitution, in and of itself, is not even a crime (though acts such as pimping that facilitate prostitution are) and sex workers are generally treated as victims, at least by the legal system.

Vanessa and Avriellya are officially neither suspects nor victims in the case — police have so far identified them as witnesses — but their reputations are both already ruined in the eyes of the general public. After their identities were confirmed by police and the media, both Vanessa and Avriellya tearfully issued public apologies following their releases long hours of police questioning.

Meanwhile, two of the alleged pimps in the case — the only ones who have been criminally charged thus far — are mostly being identified by the media using their initials ES and TN, though a few have gone so far as using their respective first names, Endang and Tentri. This is despite the fact that the country’s journalism code of ethics does not prohibit the publication of the names of criminal suspects (unless they’re underage, which isn’t the case here).

As for the one alleged client who has been questioned in the case, the police and media have identified him simply as a “businessman from Surabaya” who goes by the initial R or first name Rian. Again, it makes sense that his identity was not disclosed since he, like Vanessa and Avriellya, is only a witness (hiring sex workers is also not a crime in Indonesia). But, unlike Vanessa and Avriellya, he has been afforded relative anonymity from the prying eyes of the media.

While news outlets have already written volumes about the dirty details of the case — like “This is how to book and pay for Vanessa Angel & Avriellya Shaqila” as one disturbing headline reads — the way this case is being covered says even more about how both the media and the police, in their pursuit of sensationalism, are willing to destroy the privacy and lives of women who aren’t even considered criminals by the legal system. But it certainly serves as a great way to distract the public from their inability to report on handle so many of the real, systemic problems plaguing Indonesian society. 

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