By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
JAKARTA (Worthy News) – Southeast Asian legislators have expressed concern about growing “restrictions” on Indonesia’s freedom of speech and expression on the internet ahead of historic upcoming elections next year.
Delegates of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) spoke while Indonesia remembered the 25th anniversary of the end of President Suharto’s ‘New Order’ regime.
He had been in power since Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, yielded to Suharto, a major general, after an aborted Communist coup. That transition, in the mid-1960s, was accompanied by a military purge against suspected Communists that left an estimated 1 million people dead or missing.
However, the autocratic Suharto stepped down on May 22, 1998, leaving behind an economic crisis, an outbreak of lawlessness, and a heavily centralized, deeply corrupt political system.
Since then, “Indonesia has taken great strides in democratic reform following the fall of the authoritarian New Order regime 25 years ago. But we are concerned that if current trends of restrictions on freedom of speech and expression online continue unchecked, this important progress will be lost,” said APHR’s Yuneswaran Ramaraj, a legislator from Malaysia.
Ramaraj was part of a fact-finding mission where APHR found that Indonesia’s Electronic and Information and Transaction (ITE) Law has been used to criminalize and silence critics.
Legislators noted that the legislation’s articles on “defamation” have been “weaponized” even against “peaceful expressions” of dissent.
APHR mentioned human rights defenders Haris Azhar and Fatia Maulidiyanti, who face prison terms on what their supporters say are controversial “defamation” charges.
Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime and Investment Affairs reported the two activists for prosecution in September 2021.
The police investigation relates to a conversation on the video-sharing platform YouTube between Haris and Fatia about a report on the alleged involvement of several military figures in the mining industry.
The activists could face up to six years in prison if found guilty, confirmed advocacy group Amnesty International. “Indonesian police should drop the charges against them,” the group said.
Ramaraj agrees with that assessment, and expresses concerns the restrictions could also impact next year’s elections.
The 2024 elections will mark the first time Indonesians vote for a president, national parliament, and, later the same year, governors and assemblies for all 38 provinces.
“The ambiguous provisions in the ITE Law are clearly being misused and pose a great threat to meaningful discussions of political opinions online. [That] is particularly concerning with elections on the horizon,” stressed APHR member and East Timor lawmaker Elvina Sousa Carvalho.
“APHR joins Indonesian civil society in calling on the Indonesian government and House of Representatives to enact a comprehensive revision of the law and for authorities to halt the use of the law pending the revision,” Carvalho added.
Article 27 Section 3 of the ITE law, ratified in 2008, prohibits the distribution of electronic information and documents with “contents of affronts and/or defamation.”
However, “Continued prosecutions under the ITE Law would call into question whether the upcoming elections are truly democratic,” the lawmaker said.
APHR was founded in June 2013 to “promote democracy and human rights” in Southeast Asia, including in the 10 states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The APHR warning about Indonesia’s internet restrictions also underscores concerns about rising intolerance and extremism towards minority Christians in the world’s largest Muslim nation.
Many evangelical congregations and other denominations still have an online presence, despite reported attacks by Muslim hardliners in several parts of the country of 280 million people.
In some of the latest reported incidents, Christians on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island were prevented on May 19 from worshiping by what believers called “Muslim extremists.”
Muslims reportedly disrupted Christians as they worshipped in a village café in the city of Binjai, some 21 kilometers (13 miles) from Medan, the capital of North Sumatra Province.
Elsewhere in Pekanbaru, the capital in Riau Province in southern Sumatra, Muslims reportedly stopped Bethel Indonesia Church’s (Gereja Bethel Indonesia) worship service.
These confrontations, in which no severe injuries were reported, could still be viewed on social media, but questions remain what the impact of Indonesia’s tightening digital rules will be on publicly sharing discontent in the future.
Civil society organizations in Indonesia have already expressed concerns about the increased state monitoring of social media content.
They say these threats to internet freedom have caused a “chilling effect,” preventing internet users from participating in discussions to avoid legal harassment.
After Suharto’s effective removal from power, “Indonesia has often been considered as one of the most democratic and human rights-respecting countries in Southeast Asia,” said Ramaraj, the Malaysian legislator.
“Considering this, and the country’s position as ASEAN chair, Indonesia should continue to set an example and not turn back from the progress made during the past three decades,” Ramaraj added.
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