New media laws in Indonesia target journalists and infringe rights rather than protecting them.
Digital authoritarianism is becoming entrenched in Indonesia. New media laws offered the promise of protection, but online attacks have only increased in recent years.
Throughout 2019 journalists were frequently subject to criminal charges under the Electronic Information and Transaction Law (ITE Law), which makes cyber-defamation a crime. This provision can easily be misused to silence criticism, especially criticism of public officials.
In September 2019, independent journalist Dandhy Dwi Laksono was targeted as a suspect in the spread of hatred. He was arrested for his post about Papua and charged under the ITE Law concerning the spread of hate speech against individuals or groups based on racial and religious hatred.
The number of cases is increasing, with many digital attacks in 2020. According to the 2020 SAFENet Report, Indonesia is entering the first alert phase of digital authoritarianism. Cyber attacks in Indonesia have been widespread, targeting journalists, academics, activists or students who defend human rights, indigenous leaders, environmental activists, anti-corruption activists, and women’s groups.
Threats to human rights have been carried out through various digital attacks, including hacking, doxxing (publishing an individual’s personal details with malicious intent), persecution, hacking and spying. The COVID-19 crisis has been an increasingly serious threat to civil liberties – not only the right to privacy, but also freedoms of expression and opinion.
In the 2020 Global Cybersecurity Index report, Indonesia was ranked 24th out of 182 countries. It is considered far from safe.
Digital attacks have targeted media companies’ vulnerabilities. Tirto.id and Tempo.co had articles containing critical views on the government’s policies on COVID-19 deleted from their websites. These attacks not only reveal the security weaknesses of the media system but also represent a direct threat to democracy and press freedom. The attacks were not limited to Tempo.co and Tirto.id but extended to four media outlets.
Freedom of the press has grown worse in Papua and West Papua – and it has never been easy to report on Papuan issues. Political expression as legitimate expression can easily be subjected to repression, violence and racial discrimination, as happened in August-October 2019 in Malang and Surabaya.
After a wave of demonstrations related to racism against Papuans increased, on 21 August 2019 the government shut down the internet in Papua and West Papua. A Ministry of Communication and Information press release said telecommunication services in Papua and West Papua were blocked to accelerate the process of restoring security and order. The internet shutdown in Papua clearly contradicts Article 19 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was ratified by Indonesia in 2005.
Indonesia’s Independent Journalist Alliance (AJI) and SAFEnet brought lawsuits to the State Administrative Court in Jakarta, which ruled that shutting down the internet was unlawful.
Stretching beyond journalism, the government has enacted a Regulation of the Minister of Communication and Informatics (Permenkominfo) concerning Private Electronic System Operators. The regulation could weaken the protection of all social media platforms, applications and online service providers, especially in relation to domestic or national jurisdiction over user data, policies and practices. Such a legal framework becomes a repressive instrument that contradicts or even violates human rights.
The regulation authorises the government to block access to information online. Requests for blocking can come from Indonesian law enforcement agencies, the courts, the Ministry of Information or members of the public. The law has adopted a security approach, rather than a focus on human rights protection. It potentially affects citizen journalism platforms, and could even target mass media outlets.
Such power is easily misused. Excessive power is clearly seen in the behaviour of the police force in emergency situations, especially in relation to COVID-19. The pandemic also led to digital attacks without accountability and the ability to silence criticism.
This was legalised through a secret telegram letter (an official letter from the National Police addressed to lower ranks) issued on 2 October 2020. The letter instructed all ranks in 25 provinces and 300 districts and cities to prohibit demonstrations. It also instructed police to carry out cyber patrols on social media to watch for opinions that did not agree with government actions in dealing with the pandemic. The letter revealed police unprofessionalism because it issued instructions contrary to their duties and authorities.
The police are also considered to have lost their neutrality in handling demonstrations about the Omnibus Law on the Job Creation Bill. The law serves investment market interests instead of protecting citizens. Digital police activities regarding police spending and the alleged formation of public opinion are considered contrary to the rule of law. Journalism and the press are affected by the Job Creation Bill, and journalists are part of the civil movement rejecting the law’s creation.
The threats to the free press in Indonesia run parallel to the development of digital authoritarianism. This has been defined as a practice of repression and control in cyberspace, especially using technological oppression with the aim of weakening groups who reject government policies they consider contrary to civil rights.
Criminalisation of journalists using the ITE Law, including the use of the police telegram letter, poses a serious threat to a free press. The Joint Decree by the Minister of Communication and Informatics, the Attorney-General and the National Police, presented as a legal-interpretation document to help resolve the problems of the ITE Law, has in fact created a new problem. The Joint Decree remains easy to misuse because it contradicts the principles of legal certainty as well as the principles of law and justice. Moreover, it does not emphasise the protection of digital freedom, including stopping legal cases imposed by the ITE Law.
In addition, massive surveillance attacks and the deployment of cyber troops (professional, politically motivated social-media strategists) to create misinformation and disinformation, including campaigns often targeting female journalists, represent a systematic attack on journalist safety. Indonesia cannot be considered a safe place for journalists to carry out their work.
Herlambang P. Wiratraman is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a member of the Indonesian Young Academy of Science (ALMI), and Director of Law and Human Rights at the Institute for Research, Education and Information on Economy and Social Affairs (LP3ES). His work focuses on constitutional law, human rights and freedom of expression.
Dr Wiratraman declared that he has no conflict of interest and is not receiving specific funding in any form.