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Defamation clause criticized

Srinivas MazumdaruAugust 7, 2015

Indonesia's government is seeking to make insulting the nation's president illegal. While proponents say such a law is required to protect the presidency from slander, opponents fear it could be used to silence critics.

Joko Widodo mit dem Vize-Präsident Jusuf Kalla PK in Jakarta
Image: Reuters/Antara Foto/Y. Mahatma

The government put forward the proposal as part of its efforts to modify the country's criminal code. The clause stipulates criminal charges and prison terms for defaming the country's president or vice president. However, the government says the proposal only covers cases of slander or "personal insults," and does not apply when criticizing its decisions or policies.

Indonesia had a similar law in place during the 32-year long dictatorship of Suharto, when it was used as an instrument to muzzle the opposition.

But in 2006, the country's Constitutional Court scrapped the provision, deeming it incompatible with the essence of democracy. But despite the court's verdict, experts say, the provision enjoys significant political support across party lines.

The proposition to revive the controversial law was first tabled in 2012 under former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But since it failed to become law during his term in office due to parliamentary opposition, it was passed on to the next government.

The country's current president, Joko Widodo - commonly known as "Jokowi" - also believes such a law is necessary. "I am personally fine with people insulting me. I deal with them every day. But we have to think about the long term: protecting the presidency as a symbol of the state, not just me personally," Jokowi was quoted by The Jakarta Globe as saying.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono Präsident Indonesien
The proposition to revive the controversial law was first tabled in 2012 under former President Susilo Bambang YudhoyonoImage: picture-alliance/dpa

A 'terrible' setback?

Nevertheless, he assured that the prosivion would not be used to either obstruct free speech or silence government critics.

Jokowi also noted that he would leave it to the country's parliamentarians to decide on whether to pass the defamation clause, saying that "after all, they are the voice of the people," according to local media reports. The parliament is set to debate the law this August.

But the move has already triggered criticism and sparked fears the provision might be misused to abuse power. Zachary Abuza, an independent researcher on Southeast Asia, told DW that "if lawmakers were to pass a revised law that could withstand constitutional muster, it would be a terrible setback for both freedom of expression and democracy."

In this context, the analyst pointed out that it was the repeal of a similar provision in 2006 that helped Indonesia move up in press freedom rankings. The progress achieved so far on that front would be imperiled, should the provision become law, said Abuza.

What constitutes an insult?

Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst and lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University, believes the biggest problem with this provision lies in clearly defining what constitutes an insult.

"There are some people who are so thin-skinned that they view any mild criticism as a declaration of war. How do you know if the person is saying that in bad faith?"

The expert told DW that even if Jokowi didn't use this law against his critics - as he promised to do - there would be no guarantee that his successors would do the same.

Analyst Abuza explained in this regard that there is only a fine line between criticism of government policies and what the government views as slander.

"While the government might say that legitimate criticism of a policy would not be prosecuted, what about questioning the president's motivations for pushing for a certain policy or suggesting that the president has ulterior motivations for doing something that is not in the public good? They could be prosecuted," the expert said, adding that there is no way that the government can be trusted not to abuse such a law.

Parliament vs Constitutional Court?

Although the proposal had to be shelved in 2012, it now enjoys significant political backing from both the ruling and opposition coalitions, observers say.

However, analyst Sulaiman indicated that Indonesia's Constitutional Court is also looking askance at the proposal. "So even if the government managed to pass it into law, the court seems to be in the position to strike it down yet again."