Veronica Koman case another nail in the coffin of intellectual freedom

Veronica Koman. Photo by ACFID.

 

In mid-August, the government acknowledged that it has asked Indonesian human rights activist Veronica Koman to return Rp 774 million (A$73,400) in scholarship funds. This comes on top of a criminal investigation she faces because of her public advocacy of human rights issues in Papua in 2019.

 

Koman received a scholarship from the government’s Education Fund Management Institution (LPDP) in 2016 to pursue a master’s degree at the Australian National University. In a written statement, LPDP claimed the “financial penalty” was imposed because Koman did not fulfill her obligations to return and work in Indonesia after graduating. LPDP contract agreements state that every LPDP scholarship recipient must return and contribute to Indonesia after completing their studies.

 

In fact, Koman returned to Indonesia on a number of occasions in 2018 and 2019. She had completed her studies but had not yet formally graduated. So as far as LPDP was concerned, she was still an “ongoing awardee” and therefore had yet to fulfil her obligations as an alumnus. Koman graduated in July 2019 and reported this to LPDP in September 2019, although the reporting requirements were apparently not completely submitted.

 

The LPDP scholarship agreement includes an obligation to return scholarship funds if the student does not return to Indonesia after graduation. As Koman had not gone back to Indonesia after formally reporting her graduation, the government issued its first collection letter to her back in November 2019. In February 2020, she submitted a payment plan and made her first payment of Rp 64.5 million (AU$6,120) in April. She had not made any additional payments as of 15 July.

 

The government claims this is purely a matter of Koman not fulfilling her administrative obligations. But how much does it really relate to her advocacy on Papuan human rights issues?

 

During the massive anti-racism protests that erupted in more than 30 cities across Indonesia in August and September 2019, Koman was active on Twitter. She shared videos of the racist abuse at the Surabaya student dormitory that sparked the protests, as well as other examples of human rights abuses and racist treatment of indigenous Papuans by Indonesian police. More than 100 people were arrested in the provinces of Papua and West Papua during the protests.

 

As a result of her public advocacy, Koman received rape and death threats online. On 1 September 2019, the East Java Provincial Police issued an arrest warrant for Koman, naming her a suspect for “provocation” and “dissemination of false information” for tweeting a video of the racist abuse at the Papuan student dormitory. They accuse her of violating Law No. 19 of 2016 on Information and Electronic Transactions, the Criminal Code, and Law No. 40 of 2008 on the Elimination of Racial and Ethnic Discrimination. In late September, she was placed on the wanted persons list (DPO) for failing to attend police questioning.

 

It is not hard to understand why Koman has not been able to fulfil her “obligation to return and contribute to Indonesia”. She has at least five good reasons.

 

First, as Amnesty International Indonesia and other civil society organisations have said, the problems Koman faces are more than simply an administrative matter related to her LPDP scholarship agreement. The reality is that she is being pursued by police for disclosing racism. Police have claimed Koman’s tweets about the events in Surabaya were a “hoax” or fake news. But the attack clearly took place and the contents of the video are true.

 

Second, if Koman returned to Indonesia it would be almost impossible to ensure she was not punished on the basis of distorted interpretation of the law, as often occurs in cases relating to Papua. Consider the recent cases of Papuan political prisoners, in Jakarta, Balikpapan and Jayapura, who were convicted of “treason”, using a definition far from the legal standard described in Constitutional Court Decision No. 7/PUU-XV/2017.

 

Third, Koman is entitled to legal protection as a citizen and, in particular, as a human rights defender. Her personal safety and security have been threatened, including by state officials, but police have made no efforts to arrest those who have made threats against her.

 

Fourth, the government needs to understand that scholarship recipients cannot be expected to dedicate themselves on their return to the regime in power. Scholarships should be designed to promote critical thinking and human values ​​that are beneficial for the future of the nation. If scholarship recipients face pressure simply because of a critical attitude towards the regime, that will have a chilling effect on academic freedom and research. If scholarships are designed to strengthen the next generation of scholars and thinkers in Indonesia, judging recipients on their “loyalty” to whoever controls government is entirely counterproductive.

 

Fifth, the attack on Koman is occurring in the context of a wider stifling of criticism by scientists, academics, and researchers. There has been a lot of academic research on Papua, including from the state-run Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). But the facts have never been taken seriously by the government. It has become clear that the government of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is becoming increasingly anti-science.

 

In fact, the backlash against scientific criticism has escalated over the past week or two. University of Indonesia epidemiologist Dr Pandu Riono, a prominent critic of the government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic, has had his Twitter account hacked. A prominent civil society organisation, the Centre for Indonesia’s Strategic Development Initiatives (CISDI), which has promoted a data-based response to Covid-19 policy, has also been attacked in a similar way. Then over the past week, Tempo, Tirto.id and other leading media sites that reported critically on a so-called Covid-19 “cure” being developed by a team from Airlangga University (Unair), the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), and the Indonesian Army (TNI AD) were also hacked.

 

Hacking, doxing, persecution, and other forms of online terror have increased in intensity during the Jokowi era, and have become even worse during the Covid-19 pandemic. Sadly, there have been few serious efforts to resolve these cases, giving the impression that the state is powerlessness against cyberattacks.

 

Law enforcement in Indonesia is uncertain, discriminatory, and ignores the need for protection of human rights defenders. Law enforcement in human rights cases, in particular, is weak and continues to weaken, even though impunity for violators of human rights is characteristic of an authoritarian regime.

 

Veronica Koman is being targeted for sharing a video of a racist attack that actually occurred but those who threaten her are not pursued and those who attack scientists and media for promoting an evidence-based response to Covid-19 walk free. In these circumstances, it is becoming increasingly clear what type of regime Indonesia is beginning to represent.

 

Dr Herlambang P Wiratraman is a lecturer and executive director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights Law at the Faculty of Law, Airlangga University. He is also chair of the Indonesian Lecturers Association for Human Rights (SEPAHAM Indonesia, 2014-2017) and previously served as head of the Indonesian Association of Legal Philosophy (AFHI, 2013-2014).