There were two pieces of disturbing news from Indonesia last week regarding freedom of speech.
The South Jakarta District Court found political activist Asma Dewi guilty of ‘insulting those in power or legal institutions’, in violation of Article 207 of the Criminal Code. In a Facebook post, she had used slang words meaning stupid and crazy when criticizing the government. The court said Asma’s comments were ‘not constructive’, as the words ‘could be construed as insulting’.
Asma was sentenced to over five month’s jail but she’ll probably walk free, as her detention since her arrest last September was taken into account. The prosecution had requested two years’ jail and an extremely hefty fine.
Indonesians have never enjoyed freedom of expression as it is understood in liberal democracies but, since an era of reformasi was heralded after the demise of quasi-dictator Suharto two decades ago, there have been gradual advancements on that front. More recently, however, it seems Indonesian politicians are becoming more thin-skinned.
Witness to this trend is last weeks’ new Legislative Institutions Law, empowering the House of Representatives’ ethics council to press charges against anyone ‘disrespecting’ the House or its members. The law shields members themselves from investigation by law enforcement authorities without the approval of the president and the council.
Civil rights groups are worried the law could be used to silence critics (who would have guessed?) but parliamentarians claim they distinguish legitimate criticism from insults. To his credit, President Joko Widodo refused to sign the law but that doesn’t stop it coming into effect. He suggested the public should challenge the law in the Constitutional Court.
Let’s hope some brave souls are prepared to try.
[Sources: Articles in The Jakarta Post, 15 March 2018.]