Charges and counter-charges threaten Indonesian democracy

Author

Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir is a PhD candidate at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.

Author

Rafiqa is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of Indonesia.

Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab was reported for defamation after claiming Bank Indonesia produced banknotes with communist symbols. Photo by Reno Esnir for Antara.
Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab was reported for defamation after claiming Bank Indonesia produced banknotes containing communist symbols. Photo by Reno Esnir for Antara.

 

In Indonesia, certain crimes need to be reported to the police for investigations to begin. The fiercely contested Jakarta gubernatorial election has given rise to a cycle of reporting and counter-reporting of such crimes to police, primarily accusations of blasphemy and defamation. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and its opponents are now firing charges back and forth at each other.

 

The pattern began when incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was reported to police for allegedly insulting Islam in a campaign speech he made at the Thousand Islands in September 2016. Police were reportedly conflicted over whether his comments constituted blasphemy. Mass rallies by hard-line and conservative Muslim groups put enormous pressure on them, however, and they eventually named him a suspect (equivalent to charging in common law systems). He is now on trial.

 

FPI has long objected to Ahok leading the capital city of majority-Muslim Indonesia because he is a Christian but he is not the only one FPI has targeted. Recent protests have also been directed at President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo for his support of Ahok, and his alleged connection to communist interests. And in January, a member of the Anti-Religious Blasphemy Alliance (and former North Jakarta FPI leader) reported former President Megawati Soekarnoputri for a speech she delivered at the 44th anniversary celebrations of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

 

The FPI’s campaign against Ahok has also angered supporters of the governor, and they have not been above using the same tactics as conservative groups. In October 2016, for example, Sukmawati Soekarnoputri (Megawati’s sister, and daughter of Indonesia’s first president) reported FPI leader Rizieq Shihab to the National Police for allegedly making insulting comments about the national ideology, Pancasila. Later in the year, a group of Catholic students reported Rizieq to police for remarks they believed insulted Christianity. In January 2017, police began investigating Rizieq over comments he made suggesting that Bank Indonesia produced banknotes containing communist symbols. Most recently, Rizieq was reported for pornography after a graphic WhatsApp chat emerged apparently depicting Rizieq with treason suspect Firza Husein.

 

Jokowi has distanced himself from the hard-line and vigilante groups and this seems to have provided police with the confidence to act against the FPI. During the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the government established relations with conservative groups, including to a certain degree with the FPI, and police did not act proactively. Recently, however, the West Java Police named Rizieq a suspect for insulting the Pancasila, and are investigating the claims he defamed Bank Indonesia. Bali Provincial Police have also named senior FPI figure Munarman a suspect after he was reported for spreading hatred against local Balinese people.

 

Most of these cases – both those proposed by the FPI and its opponents – have relied on Articles 156 and 156a of Indonesian Criminal Code (KUHP) on blasphemy and the 2008 Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE) Law. These pieces of legislation contain wide room for interpretation and over the past decade have often been used as legal instruments to attack political rivals. Despite recent revisions, the ITE Law remains a threat to freedom of speech. And although the Blasphemy Law (on which article 156a is based) was passed in 1965, it has been used with increasing frequency by conservative groups in the democratic era. The state appears willing to allow this to occur, apparently afraid of losing the support of conservatives.

 

Rather than indicating any increase in legal awareness among the public, this near-absurd cycle of reporting and counter-reporting is shrinking the space available for critical discourse, weakening the rule of law. When uncontroversial statements can be easily used as the basis for charges against opponents, there is a risk of self-censorship and lively debate being shut down over fears of defamation or blasphemy charges.

 

Another way in which the Ahok case has influenced public discourse is that it has distracted public attention from issues far more relevant to the public interest. Since the Ahok blasphemy case first appeared, public discourse has been dominated by religion.

 

Consequently, valid criticism of Ahok’s development policies has been marginalised. The space available for the victims of Ahok’s eviction policies to articulate their concerns publicly has been limited. Ironically, Ahok may have actually benefited from lack of attention to allegations of corruption related to the Jakarta Bay reclamation project and Sumber Waras Hospital or the illegal eviction of Bukit Duri residents. The extreme focus on Ahok’s Christian and Chinese identity has also meant other candidates in the Jakarta election have emphasised aspects of their own (non-Christian, non-Chinese) identities, and discussion of their proposed economic and development programs has therefore been limited.

 

The serial police reports filed over the past few months have not been motivated by the harm caused by the supposed offense, but by a desire to advance particular political positions. In other words, criminal law is being used simply as another strategy in political competition. It is, for example, difficult to argue that the motivation for the blasphemy charges against Ahok was anything but political. Likewise, although the FPI has long been shunned by the majority of Indonesians, it is clear that the recent spate of reports against it are responses to its agitation around the Jakarta election. In Munarman’s case, for example, although the location of the alleged offenses was in Jakarta, Bali Police worked quickly to process the report and call Munarman in for questioning. Criminal charges are being used as the first option to solve problems, including political disputes, instead of being the last resort.

 

This over-reliance on criminal law is weakening the rule of law by politicising criminal justice. The public appear more concerned with these “slip of the tongue” type issues than with real criminal acts – such as allegations of corruption, potentially involving Ahok, or the public incitements to kill Ahok or Chinese Indonesians, many of which have been clearly recorded and broadcast by the mass media. Moreover, this cycle of mutual reporting may cement an already developing pattern in Indonesia, where political opponents are reported or targeted as potential perpetrators of crime.

 

The obvious problem here is that instead of political disputes being resolved by electors at the ballot box, or even by elected representatives in legislatures, they are being decided by police and judges on grounds that have nothing to do with policies or performance. If this does not stop, democracy will be the casualty.