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Is Indonesia criminalizing journalism?

New regulations have been implemented, and more drafted, to enable the government to control digital discourse and free expression

New regulations and revisions introduced in Indonesia this summer will likely have a devastating impact on freedom of expression for all Indonesians, experts say, with the country’s journalists facing distinct risks as a result.

In July, technology companies were required by the government to comply with new, strict licensing rules for technology platforms. These rules — called Ministerial Regulation 5, or MR5 — require tech companies to take down content deemed unlawful or that “disturbs public order” within four hours if urgent, and within 24 hours if not. 

Under these rules, technology companies are also required to release user data to the government upon request. 

“Ministerial Regulation 5 represents an attempt by the Indonesian government to hide one of the most repressive internet governance regimes in the world behind the veneer of the rule of law,” Michael Caster, Asia Digital Program Manager at the freedom of expression group Article 19, told me.

Indonesian journalists have faced a wave of physical harassment and intimidation this past July.  In one case, an aide for Maluku province’s Governor Murad Ismail grabbed TV reporter Sofyan Muhammadiyah’s phone while he covered student demonstrations against the governor and deleted some footage.

And on July 14, three unidentified men harassed one journalist working with CNN Indonesia and another with a local news website while they covered the aftermath of the shooting of a police officer in Jakarta.

These instances of harassment and intimidation were physical, but are symptomatic of the growing threat to press freedom in the country. In Indonesia, like in many other countries around the world, the assault on press freedom and freedom of expression is also legislative.

Governments often describe this sort of restrictive legislation as necessary to protect the public. For instance, in Indonesia, content related to terrorism or child sexual abuse must be taken down. However, any content that the government deems to be disturbing community or public order also has to be removed.

This sort of language, Caster points out, “is so vague and broad as to mean anything the authorities choose.” As a result, arbitrary restrictions on speech will likely become the norm, drastically expanding the government’s capacity to censor criticism. 

Indonesia’s Washington, D.C. embassy did not reply to an email requesting comment for this story.

The MR5 regulations were first released in late November 2020, and technology companies were told they would lose access to the Indonesian market if they didn’t comply. Indonesia has a population of over 270 million, and more than 190 million of them are internet users. Major companies like Google, Zoom, Twitter and Meta’s Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram all complied with the new rules by the government’s deadline.

According to Ika Ningtyas, the Secretary-General of Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), the new rules are an “obstacle to the work of journalists and the media.” In early August, she met with Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information, but officials refused to cancel the new regulations.

Drafted as they are, the rules could enable the authorities to censor journalists and coverage of sensitive issues, like human rights abuses in West Papua. There’s also a risk that the government will force tech companies to turn over the user data of journalists in particular. 

“The regulators, implementers, and supervisors are all in the hands of the Ministry of Communication and Information,” Ningtyas wrote in a Signal message to me. “There is too much authority held by the Ministry and this can be abused.”

These repressive new rules aren’t the only attempt to curtail press freedom. The latest draft of the Indonesian criminal code includes at least 14 articles that effectively criminalizes routine journalistic work. Defamation against the president and vice president is still listed as a crime in the draft, as is slander against the government and the spread of misinformation. Journalists could face prison sentences of up to two years for publishing so-called “incomplete” articles.

“This will be the next dangerous regulation that could bring many journalists to prison,” Ningtyas wrote in a message to me about the potential criminal code revisions. Press freedom groups have urged the government to drop these controversial articles and consult with civil society during the revision process. 

But the Indonesian government has not been transparent while working on these potential revisions, civil society groups say. Even organizing peaceful protests now can lead to fines and prison sentences of up to six months.

If the government abuses these new regulations, “we will have no free space to express ourselves,” said Nenden Arum, the head of the freedom of expression division at the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet), a Bali-based digital rights group. “It will really affect our democracy.” 

Much of what is happening in Indonesia parallels broader trends in Southeast Asia. All ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including the likes of the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore, sit in the bottom half of the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, according to Reporters Without Borders. 

“Governments around the world are increasingly flexing their muscles to assert their authority over social media platforms,” Freedom House analyst Kian Vesteinsson says. “MR5 is one of the pieces of legislation that really embodies this trend around the world.”

He told me that the language of MR5, in common with similar regulations, is intended to enable authorities to force tech platforms to remove broad categories of speech and give up data without needing court orders. “These laws often dangle access to a given country’s market in exchange for compliance with these really problematic censorship provisions,” Vesteinsson says. 

In recent years, Indonesia has embarked on a campaign of “digital authoritarianism, marked by high repression using digital technology,” Ningtyas told me.

When I asked SAFEnet’s Arum whether she was hopeful about the future of freedom of expression in Indonesia, she laughed. The Indonesian public largely appears to oppose the government’s increasing control, she said, but “there is still a long way to go.” 

Caster from Article 19 believes the future is bleak. “If Indonesia insists on going down this path,” he told me, “it risks becoming one of the most restrictive internet governance regimes in the world.”

Working as both a journalist and press freedom advocate means AJI’s Ningtyas is more likely than most to face harassment, she said. As Indonesia’s new regulations are implemented, she worries about what the future holds for her in a country where the government is intent on using legislation to quash free expression and exert authoritarian control over the internet. 

“I work in the shadow of terror,” she said. But she doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. 

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