Indonesian journalists wearing masks observe World Press Freedom Day in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 3, 2016. Photo: AFP Forum
Twenty years after the fall of president Suharto’s authoritarian regime, Indonesians are waking up to the fact that new laws which have either been passed or are under consideration threaten to erode the hard-fought concepts of freedom of speech and expression.
While Indonesia may have what New York-based Freedom House calls a “vibrant and diverse media environment,” its most recent 2017 report said press freedom was still hampered by legal and regulatory restrictions and a resulting penchant for self-censorship.
In what activists say is a worrying example of democratic back-sliding – and an apparent dislocation in the law-drafting process – the House of Representatives recently passed an amendment to the 2014 Legislative Institutions Law, or MD3, which effectively protects the country’s politicians from public criticism.
The legislation allows for Parliament’s ethics council to bring charges against anyone who “disrespects the dignity of the House or its members,” but does not define what “disrespect” means or say what form of punishment will be meted out to violators.
Although his ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) is among the eight political parties who supported the revision, President Joko Widodo has refused to sign it and a coalition of civil society organizations is challenging it in the Constitutional Court.
Critics say that by denying them the right to criticize their own representatives, the amended law undermines the sovereignty of the people. “I understand these concerns,” the president said in a statement last month. “We all want the quality of our democracy to rise, not fall.”
Baffling to many analysts, however, is why the palace didn’t do more to head off or at least freeze the process, when the constitution specifically states that the content of bills must be jointly approved by Parliament and the president, or his representatives.
If agreement isn’t reached, then the bill can not be considered again by the same Parliament.
A palace spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, but a senior government official claims the immunity from criticism provision was inserted after the president had approved the draft law, which also gave PDI-P two speakership positions that it had been trying to secure since winning the 2014 elections.
If that was the case, then it suggests a disturbing failure in the law-making process itself, with a lack of communication or coordination between the palace and Justice Minister Yasonna Laoly. In fact, it is similar to what is now happening with equally controversial proposed changes to the century-old Criminal Code.
Lacking veto power, Widodo was unable to prevent the amended legislative bill from automatically becoming law on March 14, 30 days after it slipped through a plenary session of the House; only the United Development (PPP) and National Democrat (Nasdem) parties, two members of the ruling coalition, stood against it.
Civil society activists who know him say that as a long-standing member of PDI-P, and a former party legislator himself from North Sumatra, the American-educated Laoly is on difficult ground, evidenced by his public call for a petition against the law in which he seemed to abrogate his own responsibility.
Despite being in opposition for much of that time, the PDI-P has had 171 local and national politicians convicted of corruption over the past decade, well ahead of Golkar (116) and former president Susilo Bambang Yudhogyono’s Democrat Party (51).
Ironically, the revision came into force four months to the day since former House Speaker Setya Novanto went on trial for allegedly engineering the embezzlement of 2.3 trillion rupiah (US$$$) from a 5.9 trillion rupiah electronic identity card (e-KTP) project.
Novanto claimed in court testimony last week that two prominent PDI leaders, Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture Puan Maharani and Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung, both received US$500,000 from the grossly front-loaded project.
Maharani is the daughter of PDI-P chairperson Megawati Sukarnoputri.
The scandal has left Parliament a target of public scorn, with the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) implicating nine political parties, along with 37 lawmakers from the 2009-2014 parliamentary legal commission, none of whom have been charged so far. Maharani and Anung had not been named until now.
The legislative law is not the only concern for press freedom advocates. The draft of the new Criminal Code, currently in the hands of a special parliamentary committee, prescribes a maximum of nine years’ imprisonment for anyone who verbally attacks the president or vice president.
Individuals who publicly defame the two leaders face five years in jail, though with a rider that their action will not be considered as defamation “if it is done to serve the public interest or as a measure of self-defense” – again overbroad language that can be loosely interpreted.
Subsequent articles also prescribe three years’ imprisonment for those who publicly defame Indonesia’s government in a manner that causes social unrest, or who broadcast, exhibit or disseminate defamatory anti-government material
Foreign journalists have little to complain about in the way of official restrictions, though Widodo’s decision in 2015 to lift the ban on them travelling to restive Papua has never been properly implemented on the ground.
Even when permission is given, obstacles remain. Military officials expelled BBC correspondent Rebecca Henschke and her two Indonesian assistants from the territory last month while covering a health emergency on the southeast coast.
Henschke was accused of “hurting the feelings” of soldiers involved in the relief effort by tweeting that the aid for severely malnourished Asmat tribal children comprised little more than instant noodles, sugary soft drinks and biscuits.
Amnesty International Indonesia’s executive director Usman Hamid called the expulsion “a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression” and other critics questioned why only the military — and not the police — were involved.
Freedom House’s 2018 country report on Indonesia has yet to be released, but it is likely to take a harsher line than it did in 2017 when Indonesia was one of the 59 countries designated as “partly free” with a score of four out of seven for civil liberties.
“Journalists often practice self-censorship to avoid running afoul of civil and criminal defamation laws,” it said in last year’s report, pointing to the 2008 Electronic Information and Transaction Law that has been increasingly used to curb freedom of expression.
Ostensibly, the law is aimed at cracking down on pornography, on-line fraud, money laundering, gambling and other cyber-crimes, but much of the focus has instead been on cases of defamation and blasphemy.
Among the more than 200 Internet users prosecuted under the law so far have been scores of alleged offenders who have been accused of lodging supposedly baseless corruption complaints against government and other public officials.
2) Does Indonesia belong in the Melanesian Spearhead Group?
Indonesia's place in the Melanesian Spearhead Group has come under scrutiny from regional leaders and experts after allegations were made by Solomon Islands' deputy prime minister Manasseh Sogavare earlier this month that Fiji pressured other countries to accept Jakarta's bid to join the sub-regional group.
The leaders of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and the FLNKS indigenous New Caledonian pro-independence group granted Indonesia its associate member status in 2015.
But as Koroi Hawkins reports while Indonesia has secured itself a seat at the table it does not mean it is being welcomed across Melanesia.
"Well firstly Indonesia should be kicked out. Indonesia is not Melanesian, Indonesia does not have Melanesian interests at its heart and Indonesia is the oppressor of Melanesians in the regions lo West Papua Iran Jaya they used to call it."
Matthew Wale is an opposition MP in Solomon Islands.
And so it was a terrible mistake for Indonesia to be admitted as an associate member of the MSG."
Mr Wale's comments are in relation to Indonesia's opposition to the United Liberation Movement for West Papua which is seeking to be the West Papuan representative on the MSG.
So far the ULMWP has managed to secure observer status in the MSG despite considerable opposition from Indonesia.
Critics of Indonesia say undermining the ULMWP was one of the main reasons it sought to join the MSG.
But a spokesperson from Indonesia's Embassy in Canberra, Sade Bimantara, says this is not true.
"You know since the 1960s Indonesia, we have been contributing towards peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia Pacific region. So all we are doing also in the South Pacific is expanding that sort of architecture building and norm setting into the South Pacific as well and working with Australia and working with New Zealand and other countries in the South Pacific region."
But the peace rhetoric stops when it comes to the ULMWP and its bid for full membership in the MSG.
"ULMWP does not belong in the MSG. It is not a state and does not represent the almost four million West Papuans living in the Papua and West Papua provinces of Indonesia. They do not have the mandate and never contested in the democratic process in Papua and West Papua."
But the indigenous New Caledonian pro-independence group the FLNKS is a full member of the MSG.
However Mr Bimantara says West Papua cannot be compared to the FLNKS.
"New Caledonia is recognised by the United Nations and is on the list of the C24 decolonisation committee. While West Papua the issue has been resolved since 1969 that Indonesia is a sovereign nation which encompasses also West Papua and that has been recognised by all of the countries in the United Nations system."
The latest shade on Indonesia's status in the MSG was cast by Solomon Islands' deputy prime minister Manasseh Sogavare who accused Fiji of putting pressure on other Melanesian countries to accept Indonesia.
An allegation Fiji's Defence Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola rubbished.
"I think he is either suffering from memory loss or is trying to play politics to his own constituents. He has forgotten that it was during his term when he was chair of the MSG when Indonesia was admitted to the MSG as an associate member."
But a Solomon Islands' academic at the University of Hawaii, Tarcisius Kabutaulaka, who was at the 2015 MSG meeting when Indonesia was granted its associate membership, says Ratu Inoke is trying to discount the fact that it was Fiji who sponsored Indonesia's bid and Fiji who had the most riding on its outcome.
"Fiji has an economic relationship with Indonesia and also there are connections in terms of exchanges of ideas vis-a-vis the military in particular. And so it is an important friend for Fiji."
Economically PNG shares a similar relationship with Indonesia to Fiji but it has even more reason to try and keep Indonesia on side given its shared land border.
Vanuatu and Solomon Islands have no such restrictions.
Solomon Islands' opposition MP Matthew Wale says since Indonesia joined the MSG it has had a chilling effect on conversations about human rights abuses and the push for self-determination in West Papua.
Mr Wale says the MSG was created to help Melanesians gain independence from their colonial masters and it has strayed too far from its roots.
"The MSG has worked itself into a bad joke. A really seriously bad joke. I advocate for the dismantling of the MSG and then a re-constituting of something new in its place that will truly advocate for decolonisation and much better treatment of Melanesians that are oppressed that are living under conditions that are not at all humane."
But Indonesia's Sade Bimantara, says the entire region is misguided on the issue of West Papua. He says Papuans are already "politically" free.
"...well West Papua is free because it is a democracy, it elects directly their own leaders and their government can freely govern in Papua and West Papua and the majority of the members of government are West Papuan natives. And also financially they are also free to manage their own finances."
On the subject of finances the MSG has experienced difficulty running its Port Vila based secretariat which was built by the Chinese government and has been getting financial support from Indonesia.
Tarcisius Kabutaulaka says it is an arrangement that further compromises the objectivity of the group.
"You know running a regional organisation or in this case a sub-regional organisation is expensive. And Indonesia has taken advantage of that and I think that is partly a result of lack planning on the part of our MSG countries. But there are creative ways of running regional organisations that would not hold us accountable to powers outside of the region that are putting money into these kinds of things."
Despite Indonesia's opposition the ULMWP's bid for membership it is still unresolved.
The MSG secretariat is looking at the application through a newly drafted set of guidelines on admission.
The outcome of this application will most likely set the tone for the next chapter of Melanesia's love/hate relationship with Indonesia.
The height of a minaret at a Muslim mosque in Indonesia's predominantly Christian Papuaprovince has Protestants and Catholics hot under the collar as they claim it is being built to deliberately overshadow nearby churches.
The Protestant Communion of Churches in Jayapura district, known as the PGGJ, has called for the minaret in the city of Sentani to be pulled down, a call backed by a local Catholic priest who called opposition to the tower a move to counter intolerance.
"Construction of Al-Aqsha mosque's minaret must be halted and demolished, while the mosque itself must lowered to the same height as church buildings in the area," Protestant Church leaders said in a statement sent to the government and Muslim leaders.
They also said their protest underlined their concern among Papuan Christians over the growing influence of Islam in Papua province.
Franciscan Father Hendrikus Nahak from Redeemer Parish in Sentani told ucanews.com on March 22 that the Protestant protest was a move to counter intolerance, which was being displayed through ego and the need by the mosque's builders to overshadow nearby churches.
"Ego makes people fall into pride. Pride makes the faithful more concerned with the accessories of faith rather than the substance of faith, and people try to show it in life," said the priest whose church is about 100 meters away from the mosque.
"Accessories should not negate the substance of faith," he said. "Even a small building, which appreciates other believers, is not really a problem."
Referring to the growing influence of Islam, Father Nahak, who has served the area for about ten years, claimed the number of Muslims particularly in cities has increased.
"It can be seen in the construction of mosques and mushola [small mosques] everywhere. In Jayapura district this is very obvious," he said.
About 1.9 million of Papua's 2.8 million population are Protestants, 0.5 million Catholics and 0.4 million Muslims. The rest are Confucians, Buddhists and Hindus, according to the last census.
PGGJ chairman Reverend Robby Depondoye said their protest is also to try and buck a trend that is taking place across Papua.
"Old mosques are demolished and rebuilt to a design similar to the Al-Aqsha mosque," he said.
According to Marianus Yaung, a member of the PGGJ's law and education desk, the under-construction minaret is about 30-meters high while church buildings are only 15-meters high on average.
The Protestant group also called for a ban on the building of mosques in residential areas.
Muhammad Taufik, who manages Al-Aqsha mosque, refused to comment.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Jayapura chapter of the Indonesian Ulema Council, Saiful Islam Al Payage said the issue should be resolved through "dialogue and peaceful means."