Speaking Out on Politics in Indonesia: More Opportunity, More Fear
Despite a legacy of citizen passivity from the New Order era, elite fear of the freedom social media promises remains strong.
On 6 April, the Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) group published poll results showing an increase in Indonesians afraid to speak out criticising government policy. 32 per cent of respondents said that they were often afraid of discussing politics, 7 per cent said they were always afraid. In contrast, a third said they were rarely afraid and a fifth said they were never afraid. In SMRC polls in 2009 and 2014 those saying they always or often were afraid to speak out critically on politics registered in the low 20s per cent.
At the same time, there are no signs of decreasing levels of political criticism of the government. Mainstream media publish critical and even humiliating reports. The front covers of TEMPO magazine and newspaper often pillory the president or other politicians. NGOs, political action groups, and trade unions are all critical. There have been many street protests.
There have been no newspaper closures or book bannings. Outside of the Papua issue, there are no political prisoners who are grass roots activists or ordinary citizens. Some people were charged with ‘treason’ (makar) in the last few years. These are mostly elite figures who have fallen out with their fellow elite. Their harassment is unlikely to spread fear among ordinary people.
What then is the cause of this anxiety that has seen the share of the fearful almost double since back in 2009?
The first relates to enforcement of the Electronic Transaction and Information Law (UU ITE) and the second to the ad hoc but persistent “kriminalisasi’” (criminalisation) of grass roots activists.
The UU ITE makes it a criminal offence to harm somebody’s reputation or to humiliate on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or “group”. Aware that this law can be used against them, people bullied online also feel seriously intimidated.
Over the last two decades, people offended by comments on social media report these to the police and the police decide whether to recommend prosecution. The two highest profile UU ITE arrests show this ping pong character.
Widodo’s review announcement also contrasts with the Indonesian Police’s decision to establish a unit to systematically monitor social media for UU ITE violations.
In 2016, former Governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, after some social media comments, was put on trial charged with blaspheming against Islam. He was found guilty and spent twenty months in jail. After his release, President Widodo appointed him to a senior position on the board of the national oil company, Pertamina.
This arrest was partly a product of a campaign against him by ultra-religious Islamic forces, led by Rizieq Shihab, the central leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). By 2017, Riziek also had been reported for at least seven statements where he was claimed to have violated various UU ITE stipulations. Rizieq fled to Saudi Arabia, only returning in 2020. He is now under arrest for alleged violations of Covid-19 protocols.
Beside these two high profile cases, there have also been many cases of ordinary citizens – consumers, teachers, employees, citizens annoyed with somebody’s behaviour – being reported and prosecuted, as well as activists.
Widespread criticism of this semi-anarchic situation no doubt led President Widodo to announce in February a review of the UU ITE. However, this item failed to be listed on the 2021 agenda for legislative review. It also is in contradiction to the government’s push to place tighter restrictions on criticisms of officials in a revised Criminal Code (RKUHP). Widodo’s review announcement also contrasts with the Indonesian Police’s decision to establish a unit to systematically monitor social media for UU ITE violations. As early as December 2020, Coordinating Minister for Politics and Security, Mahfud MD instructed the police to activate this unit. This new unit has begun to initiate reprimands. On 6 May, rights groups, such as Kontras, labelled it a new instrument of repression.
The criminalisation of protest activity by labour and other activists is similarly anarchic and fear-inciting. A company in a labour dispute or a land owner in a land dispute, for example, will report an activist under the UU ITE law as soon as anything appears on social media. Sometimes other laws are used. The police then decide to proceed with a prosecution. Many of the detentions reported in the 2021 Amnesty International Indonesia report are likely the results of such practices, although not in Papua where Amnesty International recorded more violations by the state apparatus.
The semi-anarchic use of the UU ITE to persecute people for critical comments on social media and the kriminalisasi of activists involved in local disputes does not reflect a conscious and systematic regime-coordinated increase in persecution. Instead it reflects a deeper problem and legacy of the thirty-two years of New Order repression. This is the almost total lack of organisation amongst and political representation by the non-elite layers of society creating a culture of passivity. No government since the fall of Suharto in 1998, including the Widodo one, nor any parliamentary political party, has sought to change this situation but rather appear to have accepted it completely.
Max Lane is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is the author of “An Introduction to the Politics of the Indonesian Union Movement” (ISEAS 2019) and the editor of “Continuity and Change after Indonesia’s Reforms: Contributions to an Ongoing Assessment” (ISEAS 2019). His newest book is “Indonesia Out of Exile: How Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet Killed a Dictatorship”, (Penguin Random House, 2022).