Free Societies

Protecting Freedom of Expression in Indonesia


Erin Baumgartner | Marketing and Communications Intern

As home to more than 273 million people, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country, and the third largest democracy. Compared to many of their Southeast Asian neighbors, Indonesians enjoy greater internet freedoms, and as a result are one of the largest markets for online social platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. However, a 2008 law intended to punish cybercrime is jeopardizing free speech protections for internet users.

The Indonesian Institute
, an Atlas Network partner, is informing the public and policymakers about the harmful impact of Indonesia’s Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) Law through its research and advocacy.

The Institute reports that the ITE Law has often been abused to jail or fine individuals for their actions within cyberspace, and has been widely criticized as a threat to freedom of expression, particularly for journalists, activists, and anyone criticizing the government.

Since the law came into effect, news outlets and nonprofit organizations have covered cases where the law has been used to unjustly imprison people.

A report from Amnesty International describes a case from 2015 where a mother confided to a friend in a private Facebook chat that her husband was abusive toward her. She was later taken to court and subsequently sentenced to five months in prison, and ordered to pay a fine equivalent to US$7,700 for defamation. The sentencing judge overlooked the fact that the woman’s husband had made the defamation allegation after hacking into his wife’s Facebook account.

Another case, from the International Federation of Journalists in 2021, concerned a journalist named Muhammad Asrul who published an article about an investigation into allegations of corruption regarding the local mayor’s son. The article was said to violate the ITE Law, and Asrul was arrested. He was questioned and detained for more than a month, without being provided legal counsel. Despite help from the Indonesian Press Council, Asrul ended up being convicted and served a three month sentence—a comparatively positive outcome in contrast to the 12-month sentence the prosecutors pushed for.

A report by the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet) revealed that in 2020 there were a total of 84 criminal cases brought against citizens based on the ITE Law. The most-cited articles related to hate speech, defamation, and false information—frequently in relation to government officials or government policy. Outside of official criminal cases, within the same year, 2,259 reports of cybercrime were reported to the police, more than half of which were categorized as pertaining to insults or defamation.

While The Indonesian Institute maintains that the country does need stronger cybercrime prevention and protection for the public, it says that the vague and easily abused provisions of the ITE Law have instead harmed the public’s ability to engage in free speech.

In its research on protecting freedom of expression in digital platforms, The Indonesian Institute recommends refining the ITE Law’s language to provide more clarity and cut down on the potential for abuse. Examples of the articles which consist of ambiguous language include describing violations of “morality,” defamation, and hate speech. In the case of hate speech, the law contains no concrete language specifying that the speech must be spread publicly and with intent to incite, which are normally basic hate speech provisions.

By collaborating with other civil society organizations throughout Indonesia, The Indonesian Institute promoted their research findings to key policymakers, and worked with a network of academics, democracy activists, and media outlets to increase public awareness about the ITE Law. In 2021, this pressure led Indonesian President Joko Windodo to make an official statement calling for revision of the ITE Law.

Following the statement, an inter-ministerial team was convened to evaluate the law, and given three months to complete their analysis. Although the study team resulted in a Joint Decree (officially called Surat Keputusan Bersama, or SKB) by the country’s minister of Communication and Information, the attorney general, and the chief of the Indonesian National Police that the law has been improperly enforced, positive change as a result of the official recognition is yet to come. Amnesty International Indonesia reported that a total of 98 individuals were still unjustly charged in violation of the ITE Law in 2021.

The Indonesian Institute remains dedicated to the goal of changing the ITE Law, and believes there is hope that the SKB will serve as a bridge for more cooperative work with the government to bring Indonesia’s cybercrime law back to its intended purpose, thus protecting human rights and individual freedoms for Indonesians.