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.

You May Like

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid