Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Indonesia and Free Speech

With Thailand’s woes, eyes have turned to Indonesia as a democracy model for South-east Asia. The censors could change that.

By Sara Schonhardt for

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.

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.

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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.

Media freedom has actually expanded significantly since protestors drove long-running dictator Suharto from office in 1998. Hundreds of newspapers and radio stations now circulate throughout the country, and the proliferation of the Internet is proving a powerful medium for the spread of news and information.

But new laws on Internet use show that the government still operates according to a status quo that favours corruption, limits free speech and places the interests of the rich and powerful over ordinary citizens, says Agus Surdipto, a member of the Indonesian Press Council.

He notes the 2008 law regarding electronic information transactions (ITE). Meant in part to eradicate cybercrime, the law allows for up to six years in prison and a fine of $100,000 for online defamation. It also allows for pre-trial detention, as occurred in Mulyasari’s case.

Surdipto says the law has been abused, resulting in the prosecution of several consumer complaints, but nothing related to the cybercrime it was meant to eliminate. The Ministry of Information and Communication has also been trying to push through a new draft law on multimedia content that would further regulate online monitoring.

Ministry spokesman Gato Dewa Broto says such actions are needed to keep the peace in this multi-ethnic society, where religious clashes occur with relative frequency. He says the government recognizes that laws that limit Internet content are not popular and, after attempts to push through the multimedia draft in February provoked a serious public backlash, the ministry agreed to shelve the proposal until tempers cooled.

But Surdipto says he’s concerned that the government made no effort to get public feedback on the law.

‘The problem isn’t just the content of the law, but the process,’ he says.

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‘This team is very exclusive, very elitist and very pro-government,’ he adds, referring to a legislative drafting team that he says seldom seeks the council’s input when debating new regulations.

Last month, the ministry made another attempt to garner public support for more stringent Internet controls, after Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring took advantage of a child protection survey to show that unfettered web access was ‘promoting’ teen sex.

Morality is not the only issue the ministry is exploiting to convince people of the need for more Internet monitoring.

The threat of terrorism has stalled calls from civil society to amend the ITE law. The state secrecy law, which also covers political and bureaucratic secrecy, allows journalists to be prosecuted, and Surdipto says bylaws related to blasphemy and pornography could potentially be used to restrict reporting on religion and culture.

‘Yes, we need regulation, but it needs to be compatible with multi-culturalism and pluralism in Indonesia,’ he says, explaining that the government must be consistent in forming laws that can’t be used to inhibit free speech.

But Dewa Broto insists the government is not trying to control content, claiming it simply wants citizens to use the Internet ‘properly.’ Everyone has the right to express their point of view, he says, arguing that the ministry is focused on controlling Internet communication tied to terrorism or narcotics smuggling.

Human rights groups say this is nonsense, and that the cases they have investigated demonstrate how uncomfortable the government is with Internet freedom.

‘One of the most disturbing aspects of some of the cases we looked at is the unpredictability of the claims filed against people,’ says Christen Broecker, also of Human Rights Watch. ‘Several of the defendants were charged under the Internet law when they personally didn’t take steps to put the content on the Internet…or they thought they were engaged in a private conversation.’

Pearson calls the effect of these laws ‘chilling,’ because they have the ability to stop people from even expressing critical thoughts or opinions.

And the threat of prosecution has also impacted the quality of reporting. Margiyono, the advocacy coordinator at the Alliance of Independent Journalists, says journalists who report sensitive topics often have their work cut by editors who fear being sued by the source.

Yet not all citizens are letting the threat of defamation keep them quiet. A perhaps unlikely hero is Khoe Seng Seng, a diminutive trader who wrote a letter to the editor of the Kompas newspaper alleging fraud on behalf of the property developer from whom he rents his shop.

The developer charged him with defamation, and three years later—after the courts sentenced him to probation—the developer continues to harass Seng Seng by raising the rent and threatening electricity cuts.

But Seng Seng remains unbowed. Sitting in his shop surrounded by towels and trinkets in Jakarta’s Chinatown district, he strikes a defiant note. ‘Democracy still doesn’t exist for the small people,’ he says, tapping out another text message asking for support from friends and the media.