Indonesia: Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly under growing attack

Indonesian authorities are increasingly cracking down on peaceful dissenters across the country, and allowing repression from state and non-state actors to continue with impunity, Amnesty International Indonesia said in a new report published today.

“While government officials, including President Joko Widodo, have repeatedly stated that they are committed to respecting and protecting the right to freedom of expression, the data shows otherwise,” said Amnesty International Indonesia Executive Director Usman Hamid.

The report, entitled “Silencing Voices, Suppressing Criticism: The Decline in Indonesia’s Civil Liberties”, is based on 52 interviews carried out with human rights defenders, activists, students, lawyers, and journalists, as well as media reports and case files. The report documents how the space for civil society in Indonesia has shrunk within the last three years as a result of an ongoing assault on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, personal security, and freedom from arbitrary detention.

“The recent digital attacks against dozens of journalists at Narasi show that this problem is an ongoing one,” Usman said. Between 23 and 30 September 2022, at least 37 members of the editorial team of online media outlet Narasi were the subject of hacking or attempted hacking, suspected to be related to their journalistic work. Narasi’s website was also the subject of DDoS attacks with the threat “Shut up or die.”

Between January 2019 and May 2022, Amnesty International recorded at least 328 physical and digital attacks and acts of intimidation directed against civil society, resulting in a total of at least 834 victims. The victims include human rights defenders, activists, journalists, environmental defenders, students, and protestors, while suspected perpetrators include both state and non-state actors.

Veronica Koman, an ethnic Chinese human rights lawyer who has been the subject of digital and physical harassment, told Amnesty International in an interview how such attacks create a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

“These attackers are trying to dehumanize me, from both a gender and a racial perspective,” said Veronica.

In June 2022, a survey conducted by Jakarta-based pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia found that 60.7 percent of respondents agreed that people were now more afraid to express their opinions, 57.1 percent felt that it was getting harder to hold demonstrations or protests, and 50.6 percent thought that more and more people were being arbitrarily arrested by authorities for dissenting against those in power.

“These attacks have gone largely unpunished, creating an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship,” said Usman. “If this is allowed to continue, dissenting voices will only grow weaker and more fearful, which poses a grave risk to the human rights situation in the country.”

Draconian laws, police violence

One of the main drivers of this suppression of civil society is the misuse of the overly broad provisions in the Electronic Information and Transaction (EIT) Law, which was first enacted in 2008 and later amended in 2016.

The provisions in the EIT Law are so ambiguous that they have been used as a basis for filing police reports and making arrests on a wide range of issues, under clauses criminalizing sexual immorality, defamation, and hate speech.

The EIT Law has been used to prosecute, and in many cases convict, people as varied as journalists reporting on corruption cases, academics criticizing university policies, and consumers leaving unfavorable reviews.

Between January 2019 and May 2022, Amnesty International Indonesia recorded at least 316 instances of the EIT Law being misused in violation of the right to freedom of expression, with a total of at least 332 victims.

Even when no charges are filed, the threat of the law has been used to intimidate and harass government critics, such as in a case in March 2021, when a resident of Slawi, Central Java, was arrested after posting comments questioning Surakarta Mayor Gibran Rakabuming Raka’s knowledge of soccer, implying that Gibran, the eldest son of President Joko Widodo, reached his position through nepotism. The police eventually released the man without charge, but only after he took down the alleged offending comment and issued a public apology.

In February 2021, after a flurry of public criticism against the EIT Law, including by former government officials, President Joko Widodo expressed his willingness to revise the problematic provisions contained in the law. The government then submitted a draft of a very limited revision of the law in December 2021 to the House of Representatives, but no public deliberation of the law has occurred in the House since.

In May 2022, the government also resumed deliberations on the draft revision of the Criminal Code, which had been previously shelved due to widespread public outcry in 2019. The draft code would put further restrictions on freedom of expression, including by reinstating a previously struck down provision banning insults to the President and Vice President as well as a provision that would criminalize unsanctioned public demonstrations. The government and the House have expressed their intentions to pass the new Criminal Code before the end of the year.

“Instead of revising legislation that has been widely misused to restrict human rights including the right to freedom of expression, the government and the House seem intent on doubling down on such legislation,” Usman said.

Besides  the use of repressive legislation, restriction of civic space has also come in the form of police suppression and excessive use of force against protesters.

Between 2019 and 2021, there have been several large and widespread student protests against government policies, including protests against the Criminal Code bill in 2019 and against the Omnibus Law in 2020.

During the 2019 protests, police have used excessive force against protesters including beatings, throwing stones and other projectiles as well as the use of teargas, rubber bullets and live rounds. The police reportedly detained and/or arrested around 1,489 protesters, with around 380 being charged with various alleged crimes.

The 2020 protests were followed also by arbitrary arrests and use of excessive force by the police in the form of physical and verbal abuse, beatings, and the use of teargas against the protesters. Amnesty International Indonesia verified and published 51 videos of excessive use of force by the police against the Omnibus Law protesters. Amnesty International has also verified at least 16 cases resulting in 128 victims of arrests and/or excessive use of force, but the organization believes that the numbers are higher.

Police have also cracked down on demonstrations in Papua, particularly demonstrations related to the recently passed Special Autonomy law, which has been widely unpopular in the region. These protests are often met with excessive use of force by Indonesian security personnel. Although Amnesty International has verified that law enforcement officers arrested and/or used excessive force against no less than 74 protesters, we believe the numbers are even higher.

Papuan activist Wensislaus Fatubun told Amnesty International in an interview that in the past two years, he saw a pattern of security forces being even more repressive towards Papuan protesters who criticize government policies such as Special Autonomy, while those who are for such policies receive special treatment.

“Those who protest against [government policies] are repressed, dispersed and even silenced,” Wensislaus said. “While those who are for them are facilitated, that is very clear.”

“The brutality that peaceful protesters have been met with belies the National Police Chief’s repeated pledges to respect and protect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” Usman said. “The police must promptly, thoroughly,  impartially, independently, effectively and transparently investigate reports  of excessive use of force by their members and take real steps to ensure that such violations do not occur again. Authorities must bring suspected perpetrators to justice and provide access to justice and effective remedies to victims.”

Unanswered attacks lead to impunity

Another persistent and alarming trend in the past few years has been the increasing number of attacks and harassment of human rights defenders and civil society organizations.

Amnesty International Indonesia documented at least 13 cases resulting in 17 victims of attempted killing and/or death threats against HRDs committed between January 2019 and May 2022. Unfortunately, the authorities often fail to investigate these threats and bring the suspected perpetrators to justice. This inaction provides perpetrators with impunity and encourages further threats and attacks.

In January 2019, the home of Murdani, Executive Director of the West Nusa Tenggara (NTT) branch of Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (WALHI, a member of the Friends of the Earth International network), was attacked and set on fire by unidentified parties. Murdani has advocated for many environmental and humanitarian issues in the tourism and natural resources-rich province, including waste management, illegal logging, sand mining, and natural disaster relief. He has been vocal in helping farmers reject attempts by local businesses to secure 200 hectares of land for sand mining purposes and had previously received death threats due to his activism. As of the time of writing, the arson case remains unresolved and there is no further update from the police regarding suspected perpetrators.

A number of legal aid foundations were the targets of intimidation and attacks by unidentified parties. In September 2021, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the office of the Yogyakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH Yogyakarta).  Also in September, a similar attack took place on the office of a legal aid institute in Bali, the Himpunan Penerus Pejuang Pembela Tanah Air (LBH HPP PETA), in which two unidentified men threw a Molotov cocktail at LBH HPP PETA’s office. In May 2022, a motorcycle was set on fire in the parking garage of the offices of LBH Papua in Jayapura. Although the police have investigated these cases, there has been no update regarding the progress of the investigations.

“This report clearly shows Indonesian authorities’ failure and complicity, and indeed active involvement, in the grave violations of human rights, leading to the deteriorating human rights situation in the country,” Usman said. “In his annual state address in August, President Joko Widodo said that the government must guarantee the fulfillment of civil rights. If those are not merely words, the government must now take meaningful and effective steps to ensure that all attacks, threats, and acts of intimidation against members of civil society are investigated promptly, thoroughly, independently, impartially, transparently and effectively. Impunity for these violations must stop.”