News / Asia

Defamation Laws Spark Concerns for Press Freedom in Indonesia

Under Indonesian law, government officials can charge almost anyone with defamation, an act that can land critics and activists in jail.

Critics like Usman Hamid, a bespectacled human rights activist, who hardly resembles a criminal. Neither does Prita Mulyasari, a housewife and mother of two, or Khoe Seng Seng, a slight, soft-spoken trader whose shop huddles in the back of a north Jakarta mall.

Yet Indonesian officials have charged all three with criminal defamation for actions human rights groups say the Indonesian constitution should protect.  Average Indonesians have little access to justice, says Seng, who the courts convicted of defamation based on letters he wrote to the editor of a major newspaper alleging fraud by the property developer who owns his shop.

Send denies cheating anyone, saying he only reported his case. But then Indonesian officials went after him. He says he sought protection from the government, but there was none. The small people in society are still removed from democracy, said Seng.

Gatot Dewa Broto, the spokesman at the Ministry of Information and Communication, disagrees. He says everybody has the right - even people at the low end of society - to express their point of view.

Indonesia has opened the space for free expression by eliminating most of the repressive laws former president Suharto used to silence critics. Around 200 newspapers, dozens of TV stations and hundreds of local radio outlets broadcast throughout the country. But criminal defamation laws remain on the books.

And that worries Elaine Pearson, the director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.  Public officials are using these laws to deflect attention from their own misconduct, said Pearson. "So that the interests of the powerful, the interests of politicians are protected, and their criminal defamation complaints are pursued quite aggressively while the underlying complaint that led to the defamation charges often fails to be investigated."

The proliferation of blogs and Facebook pages poses another challenge to a government that says defamation laws are needed to keep the peace between communities in a country with a history of religious and ethnic clashes.

In February, the Ministry of Communication drafted a plan that would allow Internet service providers to block websites the government deemed a threat to public order. Internet users bristled at the news, forcing the ministry to drop the review.

Then there was the case against Prita, who was jailed while awaiting trial for an e-mail she sent to friends, criticizing the treatment she received at a private hospital. The charge sparked outrage among tens of thousands who joined a Facebook group in her support.

Information spokesman Dewa Broto says his ministry was against the court's decision to eventually fine Prita more than $20,000, because it violated her right to wage complaints under Indonesia's consumer protection law.

Christen Broecker from Human Rights Watch says Internet censorship shows the government's discomfort with free expression and cases like Prita's muddy the waters on what content it deems acceptable.  "Everyone in Indonesia is on Facebook, everyone is on email and now no one knows what kind of an email, what kind of a Facebook posting could put you in jail," said Broecker.

Dewa Broto says the government just wants people to use the Internet properly.

"We would like to remind them to limit the content related to pornography and the crucial issues related to relations among communities …,"he said. "Even if we have different opinions, we don't want to reduce their opportunities to show their freedom of speech."

What concerns rights watchdogs, however, is the language the government uses when discussing laws that limit free speech and access to information. Dewa Broto says the ministry is waiting to review the law on Internet content until flared tempers have cooled.

Criminal defamation occurs in many countries - and Dewa Broto says Indonesians have plenty of freedom to use the Internet, especially when compared with China or Iran. But Pearson says the problem is poorly defined laws that end up protecting public officials over ordinary citizens.

Many of those slapped with defamation charges have been convicted for reporting sensitive information required by their jobs.

Usman, the human rights activist, was charged with defamation after he questioned the acquittal of a senior intelligence agency official who he said evidence proved guilty of murdering fellow campaigner, Munir bin Thalib.

"I was just doing a protest against the verdict, how I couldn't accept the verdict and I expressed my opinion without inciting someone to burn the court building, without inciting someone to commit violence against judges or against the perpetrators," said Usman. "I was a member of the fact-finding team set up by the president, I am a member of a very large NGO coalition doing advocacy on this case, so that's my job, that's my task."

The effects of laws that criminalize defamation are two-fold.

Activists who monitor graft in Indonesia claim  they prevent people from criticizing the government, which allows corrupt officials to continue abusing their power. While the Alliance of Independent Journalists says they force reporters to censor their coverage of sensitive subjects.

Activist Seng, however, is not afraid.

He continues to battle the developer by refusing to pay the increase in rent until he gets some answers. And when the power at his shop was cut last week, he sent out a mass SMS to activists and journalists.

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