Responding to the conviction and sentence of Saiful Mahdi, a university lecturer at Syiah Kuala University in Aceh, which will see him spend three months in prison for defamation after comments he made in a WhatsApp group, Amnesty International Indonesia Deputy Director Wirya Adiwena said:
“Saiful Mahdi’s conviction and sentence is just the latest example of how the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law is being used to criminalize even the most benign forms of criticism or peaceful dissent.”
“The fact that someone can be found guilty of defamation simply for posting a message in a WhatsApp group without even mentioning any specific names clearly reveals that the law is deeply flawed.”
“Nobody should be subject to criminal penalties for expressing their opinion. Saiful Mahdi’s imprisonment sends a chilling message to wider society and discourages others from exercising their right to freedom of expression.”
“We call on President Joko Widodo to immediately grant amnesty to and release Saiful Mahdi. We also renew our calls for the government and the House of Representatives to revise the ITE Law in accordance with Indonesia’s obligations under international human rights law.”
In March 2019, Saiful Mahdi, a statistics lecturer who worked within the faculty of mathematics and natural sciences at Syiah Kuala University in Aceh Province, sent a WhatsApp message to his colleagues criticizing the results of a civil servant test held in late 2018 to recruit lecturers for the university’s faculty of engineering.
In his messages, he said: “I have received sad news about the death of common sense in the leadership ranks of the engineering faculty during the last civil servant test,” and “Why is a faculty that was once so glorious now so faint-hearted?”
Saiful Mahdi, who had worked at the university for 25 years, analyzed the test results from the faculty of engineering and concluded that there were irregularities in the assessment process that should be reviewed. He later posted his criticism of the selection process to around 100 lecturers in the WhatsApp group. His message circulated among the university’s employees and eventually reached the dean of the engineering faculty, who was not a member of the group.
The dean subsequently reported Saiful Mahdi to the police for defamation. Following an investigation, he was charged under Article 27 (3) of the ITE Law for allegedly defaming the dean, even though Saiful Mahdi did not mention any names in his WhatsApp message.
The case was brought to trial, and on 21 April 2020 the Banda Aceh District Court convicted and sentenced Saiful Mahdi to three months in prison and ordered him to pay a fine of Rp 10 million despite there being no clear evidence proving he had violated the law. He later filed an appeal against the verdict to the Banda Aceh High Court, but it was rejected. On 29 June 2021, the Supreme Court rejected the cassation plea submitted by Saiful Mahdi and upheld the lower court’s guilty verdict.
On 2 September 2021, Saiful Mahdi reported to the Banda Aceh Prosecutors Office to begin his prison sentence.
Saiful Mahdi and his lawyers are currently preparing to send an amnesty request to President Widodo. Under Indonesian law, the President can only grant amnesty after seeking advice from the House of Representatives. The President may also grant amnesty without receiving an official request from a convicted person.
The ITE Law, including Article 27, which contains an anti-defamation provision, has increasingly been used to criminalize people who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression using electronic means, such as by writing critical comments on messenger apps or sharing opinions on social media. The Indonesian authorities have taken advantage of the more draconian articles in the ITE Law, using them to criminalize peaceful activists, journalists, and human right defenders who criticize the government. From January to June 2021 alone, Amnesty International recorded at least 39 individuals who were considered suspects by the police for allegedly violating the ITE Law.