Academic freedom under fire: constitutional law scholars threatened over impeachment talk

Gadjah Mada University’s Constitutional Law Society (CLS) was forced to cancel an academic discussion after its speaker and organisers were threatened. Photo by UGM.

 

A few years ago, when I first decided to pursue constitutional law, my late grandfather, Padjadjaran University constitutional law scholar Sri Soemantri (1926-2016), told me his life story. He recounted the challenges he faced as a scholar who spent most of his productive life under Soeharto’s authoritarian New Order.

 

Under Soeharto’s regime, he said, most Indonesian law students avoided studying constitutional law because at that time there could be no criticism of the way the government ruled, including criticism based on the law and constitution. Soeharto relied on the original version of the 1945 Constitution, and sanctified the document to the point where anyone who criticised the government’s interpretation of it would face charges of subversion.

 

My grandfather spoke of how he was under the constant surveillance by Suharto government agents when he taught constitutional law subjects to his students. On several occasions he was threatened by government officials when his teaching contradicted government policy.

 

Despite his bitter experiences, my late grandfather was very pleased when I decided to follow him into constitutional law. When I made that decision in 2014, Indonesia was considered the most stable democracy in Southeast Asia and arguably one of the most successful democracies in Asia. My grandfather believed that the new generation of Indonesian constitutional law scholars would no longer face the difficulties he had under the authoritarian New Order regime.

 

Had he lived long enough, my grandfather would have been exasperated to see recent developments in Indonesia. Since President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo came to power in 2014, the quality of Indonesia’s democracy has declined significantly. Jokowi’s government has used constitutional and legal mechanisms to undermine democratic values, such as issuing emergency regulations (perppu) to suppress his political opponents, and enacting controversial laws that threaten rights to freedom of expression and association. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, democratic decline appears to have escalated further.

 

Recently the Indonesian public was shocked when a group of law students from Gadjah Mada University (UGM), one of the country’s top universities, were accused of treason (makar). The Constitutional Law Society (CLS) at UGM had planned an online discussion on “Dismissing the President in a Pandemic, a Constitutional Perspective”.

 

The treason accusation is ridiculous because the event aimed only to discuss the possibility of presidential impeachment during the Covid-19 crisis. Impeachment is a constitutional and legal process.

 

And impeachment is not such a far-fetched idea. According to Article 7A of the Indonesian Constitution, one of the requirements to submit a proposal to impeach the president is that he or she has committed a “disgraceful act”. Just weeks earlier, citizens had filed a civil suit against Jokowi over the government’s poor handling of the coronavirus epidemic. It is therefore quite reasonable for impeachment to be discussed – for many Indonesians, Jokowi’s handling of the pandemic has been disgraceful.

 

Although the dean of the Law Faculty said he thought the event should go ahead for reasons of academic freedom, the accusations of treason created such an atmosphere of crisis that this was impossible.

 

Leading constitutional law Professor Ni’matul Huda, who was due to speak at the event, and the student organisers, received death threats from unknown people. Several people arrived at Ni’matul’s house the night before the planned event, repeatedly knocking on her door from 11pm to 6am, and there was an attempt to hack her phone.

 

The students, meanwhile, reported receiving threatening text messages and phone calls, and their social media accounts were hacked. One of the threatening messages was addressed to a student’s parents, and reportedly read: “I will kill your whole family if you can’t teach your child”.

 

Following these threats, the event was cancelled.

 

Many are suspicious that the intimidation was conducted by those connected to the Jokowi government. They point to the fact that allegations of treason were first raised by a UGM academic known to be an avid Jokowi supporter. It is also consistent with a pattern of arrests and repression directed toward those who criticise the Jokowi government, such as the recent arrest of researcher and activist Ravio Patra.

 

Further, the National Police, considered loyal to the Jokowi government, have seemed reluctant to investigate the claims of intimidation, saying that they will only do so if they receive an official report.

 

Looking at this case from a broader perspective, there are striking parallels to other countries that are also experiencing democratic setbacks, such as Hungary, Russia, Poland, and Turkey. New-school autocrats often consider academic freedom a threat, because facts and scientific findings, especially in the social sciences, can be uncomfortable for those in power.

 

This is why repression against constitutional law scholars is likely in an environment of democratic regression. Academics are often among the first to criticise the government’s actions against democracy and constitutionalism. Airlangga University academic Herlambang Wiratraman, president of the Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom (KKAI), has already detailed a worrying decline in academic freedom in Indonesia over recent years. In another recent incident, on 6 June, University of Indonesia issued a statement criticising and distancing itself from a discussion conducted by the university’s Student Executive Body (BEM) about racism against Papuans in the legal system.

 

Moreover, there is also a long tradition of rulers silencing constitutional law scholars in Indonesia, even before Soeharto. Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno, famously declared that “one cannot make a revolution with lawyers”. Under his authoritarian “Guided Democracy”, which lasted from 1959-1966, lawyers (including constitutional law scholars) were sidelined. There was little separation of powers and his regime often intervened in the legal process.

 

Given this history, it is perhaps unsurprising that Jokowi is following in the footsteps of his predecessors to repress constitutional law scholars.

 

When peaceful academic discussions are being cancelled, is the Jokowi government really so different to the New Order? While Indonesia was once hailed as one of the most successful countries in the third wave of democratisation that swept across the globe from the 1970s to the 1990s, its backsliding into authoritarianism now appears well and truly entrenched.

 

Satrio is a researcher at the Center for State Policy Studies in the Faculty of Law, Padjadjaran University.