How to be corrupt and stay in power: gag your critics…

… or even better, turn them into criminals. That’s the title of a new report by Human Rights Watch into the consequences of Indonesia’s criminal defamation laws.

As the British anguish over the state of their own libel laws, they should pause to thank their lucky stars they don’t live in Indonesia.

Turning Critics Into Criminals” exposes how the bright young democracy of post-Suharto Indonesia is a world of fear and loathing for people who dare to criticise their inept, corrupt and unaccountable leadership.

Don't speak your mind

It found that, among other flagrant abuses, police prosecutors and judges had used the draconian laws to punish and intimidate people who had engaged in non-violent activism against corruption and misconduct or sought information from the authorities.

Perhaps the most famous recent case was that of Prita Mulyasari, 32, a mother-of-two who committed the crime of writing an email to her friends complaining about being wrongly diagnosed by a local hospital.

Under the Law Regarding Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE law) which was signed by President Yudhoyono in 2008, she was jailed for three weeks and spent a year in litigation before being acquitted amid a public outcry.

The ITE law, which received bipartisan support from the country’s political elites (those with the most to lose if corruption whistle-blowers are free to speak openly), was introduced to meet the legal challenges posed by technology like the internet.

But instead of embracing the openness of the web, the law criminalises internet-based insult and defamation with even stiffer penalties than older criminal libel regulations.

Under the ITE law an individual whose allegedly defamatory statements are communicated over the internet can be punished with up to six years’ imprisonment and can be fined up to Rp1 billion (approximately US$106,000 as of January 1, 2010). Under Indonesian law the police can authorize pre-trial detention only where a person is suspected of committing a crime that carries a penalty of at least five years’ imprisonment. Thus, while individuals accused of defamation under the Criminal Code cannot be imprisoned unless they are tried and found guilty, individuals accused of defamation under the ITE law can be imprisoned,even in the absence of a trial, for up to 50 days, provided police investigators or prosecutors express “concern that the suspect … will get away, damage or destroy evidence materials and/or repeat the criminal act.”

All three of Indonesia’s largest political parties, including President Yudhoyono’s Partai Demokrat, endorsed the ITE law during parliamentary debates in April 2008. The deputy chairman of Indonesia’s Press Council, Leo Batubara, told journalists that the DPR had not asked for the council’s input on the law, and that he believed legislators had deliberately inserted the more severe defamation penalties into the draft. He told Human Rights Watch, “Some of our leaders in the government and DPR still don’t like the idea of freedom of the press.”

HRW finds that 12 years after the fall of Suharto’s “New Order” dictatorship, some of his criminal defamation laws are still being used to silence and criminalise well-meaning critics, journalists and whistle-blowers. The worst of the dictator’s defamation articles have been struck from the books, but plenty have survived to protect the powers that be from true public accountability.

Combined with the recently upheld Blasphemy Law and Yudhoyono’s 2008 ITE law, the corruptors and incompetents have a powerful legal amoury with which trample the people’s constitutional right to free speech.

(Photo courtesy of John McIntosh via Creative Commons)

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