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Indonesian Police Intensify Crackdown on Fake News

FILE - Debris, believed to be from Lion Air flight JT610 plane, which crashed, is seen during an operation by Navy divers near the search area off Tanjung Pakis, Indonesia, Oct. 31, 2018, in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media.

In the span of two months, from October to November, Indonesia's National Police have arrested more than a dozen civilians who spread false information on social media, particularly on Facebook. From the disaster in Palu, the Lion Air plane crash to a child kidnapping spree, the arrests signal intensifying attempts at clamping down on the circulation of fake news in a country that's feared it as it's preparing for the elections in 2019.

Aside from the arrests, the National Police, particularly through its cyber crime directorate, have two other procedures to be followed for fake news prevention. Dedi Prasetyo, the head of communications for the National Police, said that one of them is "preventive measures: [boosting] digital literacy and diction so that the people can be wiser, smarter and more polite in using social media," he told VOA in a text message.

Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, has more than 143 million internet users, according to a 2017 survey by the Indonesian Internet Service Providers Association (APJII)—an increase from 2016's 132 million. According to another survey by IT news website Daily Social, more than 50 percent of internet users surveyed say that they often encounter hoaxes (80 percent of all surveyed find them on the social media platform Facebook).

But digital literacy hasn't followed. Ross Tapsell, a media lecturer at the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific, told VOA in October that "Indonesia's digital literacy programs have been cut from schools in favor of religion and nationalism studies, which is a concern for the country because you do have millions of Indonesians who are only just signing up to the Internet."

Researchers Novi Kurnia and Santi Indra Astuti, who are members of the Digital Literacy Advocates Network (Japelidi) and whose research touches on the topic of digital literacy across cities in Indonesia, wrote in The Conversation that digital literacy activities (which include lectures or seminars) are mostly conducted in schools. "Based on our findings, digital literacy movements in Indonesia tend to be voluntary, incidental and sporadic," they write.

"Actually, the government has enacted measures to stem the growth of hoaxes," says Firman Imaduddin, researcher with the media think-tank Remotivi. "One of them is the application Qlue [who partners with the ministry of communications] that functions as a hoax reporting platform, but it doesn't seem like it's reached its full potential. I don't really know how [impactful] those measures are. What's clear to me is that the impact isn't fully felt, and it won't be anytime soon."

Aside from digital literacy, "the second measure is coordinating with the ministry of communications and the National Cyber and Encryption Agency (BSSN) to close accounts who spread hoaxes," says Dedi. BSSN is a government agency tasked to counter cyber security breach or the spread of hoaxes. The agency's chief, Djoko Setiadi, was installed by President Joko Widodo in January. And the ministry of information has closed or threatened to close websites, including the notorious Saracen syndicate, believed to be one of Indonesia's biggest fake news networks.

And the third is the arrests. When asked to elaborate on the procedures, including the targeted execution date, Dedi did not provide VOA with additional comment.

Side effects of the arrests

The arrests have ignited questions on their effectiveness. One of them involves the legal basis on which the arrests are predicated: the notorious electronic information and transactions (ITE) Law (it is also used as the legal basis for the recent fake news arrests). Carrying a maximum four-year prison sentence, the law is deemed to be "broadly-defined" and used to preside over defamation lawsuits.

The most recent case involves 40-year-old ex-teacher Baiq Nuril Maknun, who recorded her phone conversation with the head teacher at her school on the Indonesian island of Lombok, detailing the sexual advances she had received from the school's headmaster. Stopping short of spreading the recording (it was circulated by her friend), she was nonetheless accused of spreading indecent material and violating the ITE law—she has been sentenced to six months in prison.

Septiaji Eko Nugroho, the presidium head of the Indonesian Anti-Slander Society (Mafindo), says the circulation of hoaxes needs to be separated by the nature of the intent—whether they're innocuous or not. The ITE law, he adds, could be necessary if the intent to spread fake news could lead to riots or violence.

Have the arrests been effective, though?

"It's too early to judge the effectiveness of these arrests," he says. "We're committed to our argument that social conflict resolutions in the digital world don't always have to be handled by repressive laws. Instead, what needs to be prioritized is mediation in the name of restorative justice. The use of criminal laws should be the last resort."