Indonesia and Free Speech
Image Credit: Jennifer Moo

Indonesia and Free Speech


Indonesia may have made significant strides on media freedoms since repealing many of the repressive Suharto-era laws that muzzled the press. But rights groups say the government is still trying to silence critics of public officials, pointing to renewed efforts to monitor the Internet as evidence that free speech remains in jeopardy.

Take, for example, the case of Prita Mulyasari—probably the best example of how uncomfortable Jakarta’s elite are with online media. The housewife and mother of two spent three weeks in jail for writing an e-mail to friends complaining about the treatment she received at a private hospital.

Mulyasari’s trial sparked public outrage and drew more than 100,000 people to a Facebook page set up to support her. The courts eventually acquitted her, but the message her case sent was clear—the law could criminalize anyone for even peaceful acts of criticism.

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With political stability literally going up in flames in Bangkok, many analysts are looking to Indonesia as South-east Asia’s most stable democracy. But human rights activist Usman Hamid says as long as public officials can threaten journalists, activists and consumers with defamation lawsuits, the country can hardly claim to be a champion of freedom and openness.

Indeed, Hamid says he has also found himself facing scrutiny from officials after questioning the acquittal of a senior intelligence agency official in the murder trial of fellow campaigner Munir bin Thalib. He says he was just doing his job as a member of the team appointed by the president to investigate Munir’s death. But Hamid says he has struggled to continue his investigation because people fear being criminalized for supporting him.

The Indonesian legal code prohibits individuals from publicizing statements that harm another person’s reputation, something that Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says is needed to protect people from libel.

The problem, she notes, is that the laws too often shield public officials—even if the statements against them are true, ‘So that the interests of the powerful, the interests of politicians, are protected while the underlying complaint that led to the defamation charges often fails to be investigated,’ Pearson says.

Many of the actions that end in defamation accusations should be protected by the constitution, but Indonesia’s defamation laws are so broad that even writing letters to the editor of a newspaper or discussing official misconduct can result in criminal charges.

Pearson says the message to potential whistleblowers is clear: stay quiet.

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