Press Freedom: Indonesia government fears on critics and murals

Joko Widodo
Indonesian President Joko Widodo © picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Pool for Yomiuri

Freedom of press and expressions in Indonesia are under threat as the government under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo takes harsh actions against critics. Violence against journalists is increasing as his popularity continues to decrease.

To understand the status of freedom of expressions, an example from Tangerang, south of Jakarta, can help. Critical murals, including one which depicted Indonesian President Jokowi with his eyes covered and captioned “404: not found” were removed by public order officers and now, police is hunting the painters. The other erased murals expressed disappointment on the government’s health and economic policy related with the outbreak, such as “Tuhan, Saya Lapar” (God, I’m Hungry), “Dipaksa sehat di negara sakit” (Forced to be healthy in a sick country) and many more. A man in East Java was questioned by the police after posting a photo wearing his “Jokowi 404: not found” t-shirt on his twitter account. Portraying Jokowi in a mural was viewed as defaming a “state symbol”. “(The murals) are not our culture. A President is like our parents. It’s not that the President is anti-criticism. Criticism should be expressed in a civilized manner,” Presidential Chief of Staff Moeldoko was quoted by several media as saying.

 According to a recent survey conducted by prominent pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia released in August, the President’s popularity decreased below 60 percent from over 70 percent due to his poor handling of the corona virus pandemic. Police action and legal measures are often used to silence critical activists from prominent Non-Government Organizations (NGO), including those from Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW) and Greenpeace Indonesia. ICW’s and Greenpeace are among those NGOs criticizing the Jokowi administration for weakening the country’s once powerful Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). Jokowi and the House of Representatives approved a revision of the KPK law, which was deemed to lessen the authority of KPK. The anti-graft body later dismissed dozens of employees, including investigators, who are behind the arrest of corrupt high officials, including a Cabinet minister under the current administration.

Silencing critics was not only conducted in ‘the real world’, but also in ‘the cyber world”. SAFEnet, an internet watchdog, said there were more than a hundred cyberattacks last year, harassing government critics. ICW activists’ and former KPK leader ‘s social media accounts and phones were among those being hacked. Those who were deemed critical in the cyber world are facing the country’s draconian Internet and Electronic Transaction (ITE) Law. Many who have become the victims of the law could be charged with defamation against state officials to religious blasphemy. The pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia also found in an earlier survey, which was conducted last year, that Indonesians are now afraid of expressing their opinions. The latest survey published by the Institute of Research, Education and Information of Social and Economic Affairs in April this year, showed similar results regarding threats against civil liberties. A coalition of civil society organizations has filled a petition to the Constitutional Court to annul the ITE Law but it was rejected. The Law, as predicted by many legal experts, was applied to punish critics, minorities and powerless people. In the latest case, the Law was used to jail a lecturer in Aceh province for criticizing a corrupt system in his university. Several activists urged Jokowi to pardon the lecture as the Supreme Court upheld the sentence.

Police attack on journalists 

 The situation is even worsening as cases of violence against journalists are increasing. The Press Legal Aid Institute (LBH Pers) recorded 117 cases of attacks against newspersons last year, compared to the 79 cases last year. This year was marked with an attack by police against a journalist from the political magazine “Tempo” who tried to interview a high official of the Ministry of Finance reportedly involved in a corruption case. The journalist and documentary filmmaker in case, Dandhy Dwi Laksono, was named suspect of hate speech under the ITE Law for tweeting on clashes in Papua in 2019. Dandhy’s suspect status has never been lifted although the police have not continued the case. The Watchdoc production house, which was founded by Dhandy and another senior journalist, won the Ramon Magsasay Award, the often dubbed as Asia’s Nobel Prize, earlier this month for their documentaries on environmental, corruption and human right issues.

Freedom House once listed Indonesia as a free country in the earlier years after the disgrace fall of authoritarian President Suharto in 1998. Since then Indonesia was continuously put as a partly free country due to restrictions on civil liberties and discrimination against minorities.

Jokowi repeatedly promised to guarantee freedom of the press and expressions. He once received the Press Freedom Award during the National Press Day in 2019 for never interfering with disputes involving media. However, these promises likely have never been heard by his subordinates and die-hard supporters.