For many Indonesians, the specter of authoritarianism lingers even after its demise more than two decades ago. But the political manifestations of this specter are more vivid and visible than ever. Not only has the current regime revived the conventional tools of past repression, but the country’s leaders have also successfully adapted them for use in cyberspace, the new locus of civic activism.
The country has witnessed political rallies led by students and labor groups against a recently passed law on job creation that was rushed through the parliamentary process without due public consultation. Scenes of the rallies are reminiscent of the political upheaval in the last days of the regime led by former president Suharto, the military general who ruled Indonesia with an iron fist between 1966 and 1998. While activists were demanding electoral democracy in May 1998, today they are protesting against what they believe is an illegal legislative process undertaken by democratically elected representatives to produce a law that could hurt large sections of Indonesia’s working class.
President Joko Widodo’s administration has institutionally and technologically enhanced its coercive capabilities in the digital realm in recent years. The political battle faced by the current generation of Indonesian activists is by no means easier than the hurdles faced by the protesters who called for democracy in 1998.
Shrinking Civic Space—Offline and Online
The omnibus law on job creation is an ambitious reform project Widodo has undertaken to make Indonesia—Southeast Asia’s largest economy and a G20 member—more attractive to foreign investors. Passed on October 5, 2020, this colossal law revised seventy-nine laws, altering more than 1,200 clauses on employment and simplifying business licensing, with the sole purpose of bolstering local and foreign investment—major changes in a country of more than 270 million people, around 10 percent of whom live below the poverty line.
Widodo said after his reelection in October 2019 that such legislation was imperative for boosting Indonesia’s economy. Some argued that the omnibus law significantly enhanced the country’s business climate, boosted economic growth, and strengthened the country’s international competitiveness. The World Bank, in the same vein, stated that the law “is a major reform effort to make Indonesia more competitive.”
But Widodo’s plan has proven highly unpopular among civil society groups, with labor unions and human rights activists claiming the law has been designed to favor the interests of political and economic elites at the expense of the rights of workers and indigenous communities. The law, for example, makes minimum wage laws less favorable to workers and significantly reduces the decisionmaking role of local communities on environmental issues that impact their lives. The government claims to have involved at least fourteen trade unions in the consultation process. Yet several unions have stated they were not meaningfully consulted.
The way the law was drafted, deliberated on, and passed without adequate consultation or transparency, as stipulated in a 2019 law on the legislative process—meaning that people have the right to give input through public hearings, seminars, workshops, and/or discussions—has only fueled public opposition to the law.
It is no surprise that the passage of the law, while the country continues to struggle to contain the surge of COVID-19 cases, triggered a wave of nationwide protests led by labor and student activists. Many students view the protests as part of an ongoing battle to push back against what they believe is a systematic attempt by oligarchic forces within the current regime to roll back political reforms introduced after the fall of Suharto. The student movement has been identified with the online hashtag #ReformasiDikorupsi (#ReformCorrupted), which gained traction earlier this year during the fight against legislative attempts to weaken the nation’s anticorruption body and revive draconian defamation laws.
The Widodo administration did not take the protests lightly. Long-time observers of Indonesian politics have argued that the current regime may have taken a page or two from the Suharto autocratic playbook in dealing with the protests, highlighting the regime’s “general recourse to repressive measures” and the “increasingly politicized role of the security apparatus.” Amnesty International Indonesia has recorded at least 402 victims of police violence during the protests across thirty-three provinces so far, including journalists. At least 660 people have been detained for organizing or taking part in the demonstrations.
Nonetheless, it is not the government’s heavy-handed response to the protests that truly evokes the horror of Suharto’s dictatorship. It is the way the current government methodically works to discredit the protests and frame the protesters as rioters or the unwitting pawns of political manipulation by shadowy anti-government forces, reminders of the repressive and propagandistic tactics Suharto and his regime used to deal with political dissent.
The Weaponization of Internet Regulations for Controlling Dissent
The only difference is that now the whole operation is, for the most part, carried out in cyberspace. A few days prior to the passage of the new jobs law, Indonesia’s national police chief issued a circular ordering his officers to ban political rallies between October 6 and 8 under the pretext of containing the pandemic. It also contained instructions for how to conduct “cyber patrols” to monitor plans for rallies, “clarify hoaxes” regarding the omnibus law, and “counter” antigovernment narratives.
In the days following the large protest on October 8, the cyber police squad arrested at least eight leaders of the Save Indonesia Coalition, a newly established opposition group consisting of Islamist and nationalist figures. The police charged the detainees with incitement under the 2008 Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law, accusing them of using social media to incite the jobs law protests that the government painted as riots. There was some arson during protests in Jakarta and other cities that was attributed to students without proof. The police also arrested seven administrators of a WhatsApp group, a Facebook page, and an Instagram account used to mobilize and organize the protests.
The arrests, which attracted extensive media coverage, were seemingly designed to have a chilling impact on free speech. They also amplify the narrative that those taking part in the street protests against the omnibus law were duped by so-called internet hoaxes and hate speech. According to a recent survey, nearly 70 percent of Indonesians are now afraid to express their opinions. This is by no means a new phenomenon. This latest crackdown coincides with what scholars describe as the authoritarian and illiberal turn of the Widodo administration.
The ITE Law was passed in 2008 under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and has since become the most significant threat to digital freedom in Indonesia. The law’s provisions outlawing online defamation have been weaponized by various actors—politicians, corporations, and powerful mass organizations—but the government itself has only recently begun using this part of the law as a political tool to subvert criticism.
Widodo is not the only democratically elected Indonesian president to jail his critics. But he is certainly the most prolific. According to the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SafeNet) and Amnesty International records, the number of ITE Law–related cases that were tried more than tripled from seventy-four cases during Yudhoyono’s second term (2009–2014) to 233 cases during Widodo’s first term (2014–2019). Of the 241 people charged under Widodo as of the second quarter of 2020, eighty-two of them were accused of insulting the president.
The stakes of burgeoning online activism and digital repression in Indonesia are quite high and are set to rise ever higher. Over the past decade, internet access in the country has expanded exponentially, and online discourse has become increasingly politicized. When Yudhoyono began his second term in 2009, only 7 percent of Indonesians used the internet. The share of internet users grew to nearly 15 percent in 2012, when Widodo was elected governor of Jakarta, having won the election with the support of strongly organized online volunteers. Internet use has exploded ever since, reaching almost 48 percent of the population by the time Widodo began his second term in 2019.
The rapid expansion of the internet in Indonesia has led to the proliferation of online transgressions, such as fraud and hate speech, along with heightened politicization in the form of online protests. This crucial development has provided the Widodo regime with the political rationale for building more elaborate IT infrastructure and weaponizing it to silence political dissent.
In 2017, Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology purchased a $13.8 million web crawler to root out hoaxes, hate speech, and pornography on the internet. That same year, the National Cyber and Encryption Agency was established, and the National Police upgraded its cyber crime agency from a unit under the Special Crimes Directorate into a dedicated directorate in its own right.
These institutions were formally created to fight many forms of cyber crime, but there is no doubt that they appear to be focused on criminalizing online hoaxes, hate speech, and pornography under highly problematic laws. According to police records, the police have received 20,033 reports of cyber crime to date, 37 percent of which are categorized under the label “provocative content,” the second-largest type of cyber crime after online fraud. It is unclear if this figure includes reports made by police officers themselves, reports that often are used to make arrests on defamation charges, even without a complainant.
The potential for abuse with this powerful IT infrastructure and flawed legislation has raised serious concerns, as this status quo frequently leads to persecution of political activists. One such recent case illustrates how tech-savvy authorities are defining hoaxes arbitrarily. A thirty-six-year-old activist who criticized the job creation law on Twitter was accused of “spreading hoaxes” regarding the content of the law after her tweets were tracked by the police’s cyber crime squad. At the time of her arrest, the Indonesian parliament had already passed the law but had yet to release the official draft of the law, and public confusion ensued as various versions of the draft law were in public circulation, each of which was confirmed to be authentic by the relevant officials. In an televised interview, the police claimed to have not had the official draft law either.
The Fight for Online Freedom in a Contested Space
The expansion of Indonesian cyberspace has not translated into a widening of civic space. In fact, government exploitation of IT infrastructure and problematic laws for regulating online civic discourse have brought back the specter of Suharto’s New Order to haunt Indonesia.
The government’s handling of the protests over the jobs law illustrates its growing capacity for controlling the flow of public information. It has used problematic legislation to create a climate of fear in cyberspace, delegitimize protests, and hinder collective action by civic activists.
The challenge facing civil society groups is a difficult one. Other than draconian cyber laws and pro-government trolls, another significant threat to online freedom is the rise of hacks targeting activists. The internet watchdog SafeNet has recorded an increase in alleged digital attacks in connection with the jobs law protests. As of October 20, 2020, it had recorded at least sixteen cases of hacked social media accounts targeting labor and student activists.
The planned passage of a new bill on cybersecurity poses another potential threat to Indonesian citizens’ online freedom. Activists have voiced concerns that the bill will further restrict digital human rights. The government is likely to keep raising the stakes—in response to the job creation law protests, the Indonesian government recently announced that it would issue a special regulation detailing conditions for it to block social media platforms.
Indonesian civil society is fully aware of this alarming trend, with one Indonesian newspaper calling Widodo’s sixth year in office “the year of digital repression.” But online protests in defense of victims of the ITE Law have been sporadic and lack the structure needed to support a long-term and systematic campaign for online freedom.
Facing an unsustainable lack of strategy, Indonesian civil society needs to craft an effective new approach in the face of a technologically powerful regime sporting the tools of a dystopian future that mirrors and amplifies past authoritarianism. Civil society groups must band together and muster greater public support, both online and offline, to resist any forms of internet control (whether institutional or technological), reclaim their freedom, and prevent the civic space for digital activism from shrinking further. Meanwhile, concerned scholars, intellectuals, and activists should put pressure on the government (including the parliament) to improve the country’s human rights record, and they should demand an explanation for why hard-line policy approaches of the past should be given any role in determining Indonesia’s future.