Defaming Yogyakarta … and God

Have you ever complained online about the service you received from a business? Have you ever liked a comment on Facebook which was critical of a politician or other public figure? Have you ever signed an online petition that might have offended the ‘dignity’ of a powerful person or their business interests?

If you said yes to any of these and live in Indonesia, you may have committed a criminal offence that is punishable by up to 6 years in prison. This is because of a controversial 2008 law which has effectively criminalized critical speech in Indonesia. And it is this law which TBI, a scandal-tainted language school in Indonesia, has threatened to use to silence critics of its notorious visa scams and other devious doings.

ITE Law and Its High-Powered Defenders

In recent weeks, this blog has foregrounded the 2008 ITE Law, a draconian Indonesian law which criminalizes making ‘defamatory’ comments against individuals and companies on the Internet. It casts a frighteningly wide net, potentially making it a criminal act to complain about the service you received from a business or to expose corruption in the government. The fact that the allegations are true may not even be a defense.

The Constitutional Court has ruled the law valid, claiming that politicians have a right to defend their ‘dignity’ and reputations. Protecting the mighty and powerful against the weak is what this law is all about. According to the scandal-tainted Constitutional Court, defending the ‘dignity’ of the powerful was judged so important that it trumped the right to freedom of speech in a democracy. (A couple of years after this decision, the head of the court was found guilty of accepting bribes in disputed election cases. When his office was searched, it contained both ecstasy tablets and marijuana). Presumably, calling Mochtar a drug-using hypocrite and criminal would be illegal under this law. He has a right to protect his ‘dignity’ against the truth.
Akil Mochtar, the disgraced Constitutional Court judge

Akil Mochtar, the disgraced Constitutional Court judge

Defaming Yogyakarta

In recent months, the ITE law has been applied ever more broadly, bringing even more categories of speech within its ambit. It had already been established that criticizing individuals, especially corrupt politicians, was classed as ‘criminal defamation’ under the act. Furthermore, we already knew that it was illegal to criticize the service you received from hospitals and other service providers. This had been established by the notorious Prita Mulyasari case in 2009. But as of 2014, the law has started to be applied even more broadly. There is now a case before the courts in which a woman is being tried for defaming the city of Yogyakarta! It would be laughable, a true farce, were it not for the fact that a woman’s life has been turned upside down by this vindictive and authoritarian prosecution.
Prita Mulyasari, a victim of the ITE law

Prita Mulyasari, who defamed a hospital

In September the police charged Florence Sihombing under Article 27 on defamation and Article 28 on hate speech against ethnicity, religion, race and intergroup affiliations (SARA) of the 2008 ITE Law. The week before, Florence expressed her anger on social-media platform, Path, in which she insulted Yogyakarta and advised her friends not to live in the city, known for its large population of out-of-town students.

Jogja is poor, idiotic and uncivilized. Friends from Jakarta, Bandung, please stay away from Jogja,” she wrote in one of the posts.
Now, some people have said that Florence comes across as petulant, petty or simply not nice. This is entirely besides the point. A law requiring people to be nice and even-tempered in all situations is not reasonable or desirable. Florence should be allowed to vent her spleen about her negative experiences. Charging her for criminal defamation against a city is not only absurd but a huge violation of her civil rights as a citizen of a democratic republic. A city does not have feelings and does not need to be protected from the insults of an angry visitor. The reputation of an abstract entity cannot and should not trump the right to free speech in a democracy.
Florence Sihombing, the ITE law's latest victim

Florence Sihombing, who defamed a city


Stretching the Law Beyond Common Sense
Even if we accept that the ITE is a valid law, the case stretches the definitions of key words in the law to breaking point and beyond. For this reason, amongst others, it has certainly raised a lot of eyebrows. For one thing, it is a huge stretch to say that Yogyakarta, a royal city in Central Java, is a race or an ethnicity. The people of Yogyakarta are Javanese, and Florence does not once mention their ethnicity. Yes, she insulted ‘people of a particular locality’ but the law does not say that is prohibited. It only mentions incitement to hate against a racial or ethnic group. But in allowing this case, the court has decided that insults against ‘people of a particular city’ is now a criminal offence too. The law, already far too broad according to most critics, has been stretched even wider yet. The implications of this are worrying, to say the least.

For instance, people in Jakarta often tell jokes about the parsimonious (cheap/miserly) denizens of Tegal, a city in Central Java known for its budget food-stalls and penny-pinching citizens. Eating at a warteg (warung Tegal) is viewed as a sign you are either cheap or poor or both. I recall one evening when I was trying to haggle an ojek (motorbike taxi) driver down from Rp 15.000 to Rp 10.000. He jokingly asked me if I was a native of Tegal because I was being so pelit (cheap). Should I perhaps have started a legal action against him for defaming the good name of the people of Tegal? According to the logic of the Florence Sihombing case, he was engaged in criminal defamation of that fine town. This law is the Indonesian equivalent of criminalizing ‘blonde jokes’ or jokes against Irish people.

Ridiculous as this case seems, it was worth remembering that a woman is facing jail because he said people from Yogyakarta are uncivilized. And this is the 38th such case to have found its way to court. No one knows what is legal or not, and falling foul of this authoritarian law could land you in jail. Courts have been very elastic in the interpretation of what it covers, so no one can know just how far it extends. Judging from the growing body of case law, its extent is extremely broad indeed. As a matter of fact, there is already one case where the courts found that even God is protected from defamation by the Electronic Transmissions Law.

Defaming God

On June 15, 2012, Alexander Aan, an athiest of the Minang ethnic group received a 2 and a half year jail term for declaring himself an athiest on Facebook. Aan was charged under Article 28(2) of the Electronic Information and Transaction Law for disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hostility. In addition to his lengthy jail term, he was fined Rp 100 million, which amounted to several years’ worth of salary for the man. He was virtually bankrupted for his criminal defamation of God on Facebook. This case highlights how draconian this law really is and how ill-suited to a supposedly democratic country. Why a supernatural being needs the protection of an article of the Indonesian criminal code is beyond me. But it is an established matter of law that it even extends into the Great Hereafter.

Clearly so sweeping a law is an example of authoritarianism gone mad. The courts have whole-heartedly endorsed the criminalization of anyone who criticizes public figures, businesses, cities, ethnic groups, races, and even deities. Vast swathes of public discourse have been ruled illegal by a vindictive and punitive law aimed at silencing dissent in Indonesia. It is unevenly and haphazardly applied but its mere existence is already having a chilling effect on public debate in Indonesia.

For example, the moderators on public forums at sites such as ‘Living In Indonesia’ routinely issue warnings that posters may have committed any offence under the ITE law. People are warned to be ‘cautious’ and ‘self-censoring’ when they speak their mind. Surely Indonesia did not overthrow the authoritarian General Suharto just to reinstate the kinds of laws his repressive regime favored. This law needs to be severely restricted in its application or, preferably, completely repealed.

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