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Opinion: Indonesia's penal reform is a danger to democracy

Rahkasiwi Dimas Susanto | indonesische Redaktion
Rahka Susanto
December 8, 2022

The reform of Indonesia's criminal law not only makes sex outside marriage a punishable offence. Freedom of expression is also being restricted. It's a threat to democracy, says Rahka Susanto.

Protestors hold up signs in Indonesian
Activists protest against Indonesia's new penal code in Yogyakarta, IndonesiaImage: Slamet Riyadi/AP/picture alliance

Sex sells: The Indonesian parliament's ban on extramarital sex this week made international headlines. However, it was often overlooked that the reform also severely restricts the right to freedom of expression.

The new code prohibits, among other things, demonstrations without registration, the dissemination of views contrary to state ideology, and insulting the president and other public officials.

Anyone who behaves in a hostile manner towards the six religions and beliefs officially recognized in Indonesia, i.e. Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, can now expect a prison sentence up to five years on charges of blasphemy.

Rahkasiwi Dimas Susanto | indonesische Redaktion
Rahkasiwi Dimas Susanto is a reporter with DWImage: Privat

At first glance, everything seemed coherent and politically correct: 77 years after independence from the Netherlands, Indonesia reformed its penal code, which dates back to colonial times, for the first time. Jakarta sold the reform as liberation from the nation's colonial legacy and an urgently needed modernization.

Insulting high office becomes an offence

But the reality is different. Because with the article on "insulting heads of state and state institutions," the government in Jakarta facilitates the criminalisation of its critics. Instead of the announced modernization, the criminal law reform enables arbitrary prosecution.

Indonesia is thus following Thailand's example. In the neighboring country, insulting or violating the dignity of a ruling head of state, often a monarch, or the state itself, has long been considered a criminal offence.

Critics fear that a flexible interpretation of the new penal code could make it easier to arrest opposition figures. It could also include monitoring critical statements on social media.

Although criticism and insult are two different offences, there is no precise definition in the new text of the law of what counts as criticism and what counts as insulting the government. So far, the government has always pointed out that Indonesia is a society that upholds "Eastern civilization," so criticism

should be expressed politely. This raises the question of when something is considered polite or impolite.

Constitutional judges decide

Indonesia is a young democracy. The largest Islamic country in the world has only had a law protecting freedom of expression since 1998. Many young people did not experience the times of dictatorship under General Suharto, who ruled between 1965 to 1998. More than 156 million people out of the total population of 274 million (57%) are under 30 years of age.

Two lawmakers hold up a document in the Indonesnian parliament
Indonesian parliamentarians ratified the new penal code this week, which replaced its colonial era predecessorImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

Of all Indonesians, the young generation that grew up under democracy must now fear for their freedom. Only the Indonesian Constitutional Court can stop the dangerous reform. If the supreme court judges find that the new penal code violates the constitution, which protects the right to expression, it would be a major victory for democracy.

Europe can also contribute to the protection of human rights in Indonesia. EU member states should raise the issue of violations of freedom of expression and human rights with Indonesia's President Joko Widodo at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit with the EU in Brussels on December 14 and demand changes.