Indonesian Court Acquits Two Prominent Rights Defenders of Defamation

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Indonesian Court Acquits Two Prominent Rights Defenders of Defamation

Fatia Maulidiyanti and Haris Azhar were accused of defaming a senior member of President Joko Widodo’s cabinet.

Indonesian Court Acquits Two Prominent Rights Defenders of Defamation

Fatia Maulidiyanti and Haris Azhar, who were yesterday acquitted in the defamation case filed by Luhut Pandjaitan, a senior member of President Joko Widodo’s cabinet.

Credit: X/KontraS

Two prominent Indonesian human rights activists have been acquitted of criminal defamation in a case filed by a prominent member of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s cabinet.

In a hearing yesterday, East Jakarta District Court found Fatia Maulidiyanti and Haris Azhar not guilty of the charges, which were filed by Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime and investment affairs. “The defendants are declared free of all charges,” the judges stated in their decision, Tempo reported.

In March of last year, Haris, the executive director of the human rights NGO Lokataru, and Fatia, the coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), were charged with defamation under Indonesia’s Electronic Information and Transactions Law, often known as the ITE Law for short. They also faced secondary fake news and defamation charges under the Criminal Code.

The charges referred to a YouTube video in which the activists speculated about connections military operations in the eastern Papua region and prominent mining firms. In the video, Fatia alleged that Luhut was implicated as a shareholder of one of the companies. Luhut, who filed a defamation complaint against the pair in September 2021, denies the accusations, and took particular umbrage to being described in the video as “the lord,” a reference to the almost comically broad array of duties that he has been assigned by Jokowi.

Prosecutors had earlier demanded a sentence of four years in prison for Haris and three years and six months for Fatia.

In yesterday’s hearing, Judge Muhammad Djohan Arifin said, the judges ruled that the comments made by Haris and Fatia in the YouTube did not constitute criminal defamation. The conversation was well within the bounds of legitimate opinion and analysis and their use of the word “lord” was not defamatory, they ruled, since they were simply referring to Luhut’s position in the government.

The decision was broadly applauded by rights groups, but with the caveat that the case was just one of many in which the Yuneswaran Ramaraj, a Malaysian MP and member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said in a statement that the group was “encouraged” by the ruling, but called on the Indonesian government to repeal the ITE Law. It said that even after its revision last month, the legislation was “broad and ambiguous” and had been used effectively to criminalize dissent.

Amnesty International Indonesia, which likewise described the acquittal as a sign of “hope,” said that it has counted “at least 504 cases” of the ITE Law being misused in violation of the right to freedom of expression against 535 people during the period 2019-2023. Those accused under the law include activists, human rights defenders, journalists, academics, and other individuals.

In an article for The Conversation published today, Tim Mann of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam, and Society wrote that while the acquittal of Haris and Fatia was “astonishing,” the case had “marked a bleak new low for freedom of expression in one of the world’s largest democracies.”

He wrote that it was just one instance in which the government had used “judicial harassment to target activists.” In contrast to “cruder tactics” such as cyberattacks or physical violence, these legal cases are “designed to lend an air of legitimacy to government repression.”

“Luhut has made it clear that the goal of the case against Haris and Fatia is to silence dissent,” Mann added. “He appears to be succeeding.”