Indonesia Is Freer, but Still Polices Speech ; New Arrests Rekindle Debate about a 2008 Law on Electronic Defamation

By Cochrane, Joe | International New York Times, September 23, 2014 | Go to article overview

Indonesia Is Freer, but Still Polices Speech ; New Arrests Rekindle Debate about a 2008 Law on Electronic Defamation


Cochrane, Joe, International New York Times


Under an electronic information law, offenders can be imprisoned for up to six years for cyberdefamation.

When an Indonesian law student posted an online rant saying that the historic city of Yogyakarta in Central Java was "poor, stupid and uncultured," she earned more than the ire of its residents. She ended up in a police detention cell, charged with cyberdefamation.

The episode was one of four recent defamation cases that have rekindled a national debate about a 2008 electronic information law under which offenders can be imprisoned for up to six years. Rights activists, the news media and much of the public consider the law a blemish on Indonesia's mostly successful transition from an authoritarian state to Southeast Asia's most robust democracy.

The other cases, which drew national attention and much scorn in the news media, raised similar questions about the limits on online speech in Indonesia, which has among the most Facebook and Twitter users in the world.

A day before the law student's arrest, a noted criminologist was forced to issue a public apology when the national police chief threatened to investigate him on suspicion of criminal defamation for stating -- accurately, according to antigraft groups -- during a television interview that the police department's general crimes division was rife with corruption.

In another case this month, the East Java Province branch of a hard-line Muslim group, the Islamic Defenders Front, filed a police complaint against students from a local Islamic university for "defaming God." The students had organized a freshman orientation program titled "God is Rotting: Reconstruction of Fundamentalism to Create a Cosmopolitan Islam."

The group demanded that the students be executed.

Most recently, the mayor of the West Java city of Bandung, Ridwan Kamil, reported a local Twitter user to the police, citing the cyberdefamation law in denouncing his comments, including a joke about the mayor's sexual orientation.

The four cases have produced only one arrest so far and no convictions. The law student, Florence Sihombing, 26, was released and issued a public apology but remains under investigation.

But the 2008 Law on Information and Electronic Transactions provides for prison time for anyone convicted of using electronic media -- including Internet news portals, social media networks and television -- "to intimidate or defame others." Article 27 of the law says insulting the "dignity of someone" is a criminal offense.

And while there have been fewer than 20 criminal prosecutions under the law, that has not stopped people from going to jail. Under Indonesian law, in cases of crimes punishable by six years or more in prison, the police have the authority to detain suspects.

"I don't know why this would happen in Indonesia in 2014," said Agustinus Pohan, a legal expert at Parahyangan Catholic University in Bandung, the capital of West Java Province. …

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