Criminalising speech in Indonesia

Indonesians will find it difficult to boast of being from a democratic country as long as their compatriots continue to fall victim to the Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) Law.

On Tuesday, the latest victims included graduate student Florence Sihombing, sentenced to two months’ imprisonment with six months’ probation and a fine of Rp10 million (RM281,000) for insulting Yogyakarta via her Path status last August.

On the same day, the Bandung District Court convicted Wisni Yeti of indecent statements against her former husband on her Facebook account. Dozens of similar cases have surfaced since the law was passed in 2008 and many groups are pushing for its revision.

A satay skewer vendor detained for defaming President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and a housewife criminalized for criticizing her husband’s dismissal as unfair on her Facebook account are other recent cases. All show how vulnerable ordinary people are to accusations of defamation during today’s habit of updating statuses or airing personal thoughts publicly.

Digital technology and mobile gadgets provide us with new challenges. Can we think before we post? When should citizens turn to the police to report defamation? How should law enforcers educate society about freedom of speech and the grossly underused freedom of debate – instead of criminalizing free speech?

In the wake of our own war on terrorism, the authorities have also used the law to block several websites considered to contain “illegal content”. Following the report of the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), the Communications and Information Ministry blocked several websites, including those considered to be luring people to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which is banned here.

Illegal content is categorised as that which incites “hatred and hostility to individuals and/or groups based on Sara [tribal affiliations, religion, race and societal groups]”.

However, following a public outcry that warned against New Order-like tendencies, under which the government could use its own interpretation as to what constituted both defamation and illegal content, the ministry unblocked 22 websites.

Articles on defamation and the incitement of hatred and hostility have been infamously used based on vague reasoning in the past, long before the age of the Internet. However, in the digital era, education would be more effective to avoid defamation issues, as well as simply pausing for a while before clicking the send button.

Also, online content on religion that is similar or more appealing than content that incites hatred and hostility is urgently needed for impressionable minds. Our brilliant hackers are always available to unblock websites themselves, while it is equally simple to set up new ones.

Therefore, we support efforts to change the law, so users can gain “security, justice and legal certainty” as prescribed in the law itself. Since the housewife Prita Mulyasari was tried for defamation through her email about a hospital’s poor services, citizens must be wondering at the impunity for large-scale corrupt individuals while ordinary folk are sent to prison for updating their status or sending an email. – The Jakarta Post, April 3, 2015.