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Indonesian man convicted of libel on Twitter, protest surges over draconian internet law

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Benny Handoko is just a regular guy in Indonesia who enjoys tweeting about soccer and politics, but today, as reported by The Jakarta Globe, the Indonesian court found him guilty of posting libelous comments against a politician in Indonesia. He is sentenced to one year probation. His case drew more protests about the dodgy internet law that has become the basis of many other defamation prosecutions in the country.

Handoko, using the Twitter handle @benhan made a tweet on December 7, 2012 that the politician was stealing money from Bank Century, a defunct bank that caught national attention regarding a bailout scandal. Handoko also pointed out that the politician held a position as a tax official during Indonesia’s most corrupt era. It drew a tweet war with the politician that, in the end, resulted in today’s court verdict. Handoko’s Twitter handle became famous in the process and it now has over 53,000 followers.

According to Jakarta Post, online defamation, which is covered under articles 27 and 45 of the Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) law, stipulates that “anyone found guilty of using electronic media, including social networks, to intimidate or defame others could be liable to six years in prison and a fine of up to Rp 1 billion (US$105,000).”

A national debate

Opponents offer several arguments for why this regulation should be revised or even deleted.

First, it’s not in line with the defamation regulation under the criminal code, which has much less severe punishment. After four years of implementation, the ministry of ICT finally agreed on this and plans to reduce the sentence according to the more general criminal conduct code. So this isn’t the biggest issue.

Second, the internet regulation is not in line with the country’s democratic constitution, which allows the freedom of speech, both offline and online. The Alliance of Independent Journalists in Indonesia believes that the regulation could curtail freedom of expression in the country. On the other hand, the constitutional board of judges argue that an individual’s right to protect his or her reputation should be protected. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that there’s no limits, so the regulation is there to help protect society against malicious conduct.

Some people would also argue that defamation shouldn’t be regulated under the criminal conduct code because it isn’t an attack against the state, but instead under the civil conduct code because it’s an attack against an individual.

The ITE law has been the root of protests even during the early days of its implementation in 2009. But the law still stands within the five-year cabinet period, and now three organizations – ICT Watch, Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SafeNet), and the Institute of Policy Research and Advocacy (Elsam) – plan to make sure that the ITE regulation gets revised for the upcoming five-year cabinet period.

Kompas cited Safenet’s Damar Juniarto as saying that there are over 25 cases of people being prosecuted under the disputed ITE regulation. Some examples include Donny Iswandono, who received defamation charges last September for his online article about the corruption in South Nias, North Sumatra.

The month before, a Facebook user was charged with libel for making an online comment about the indication of corruption at the Bethany Church in Surabaya, East Java. Because of such cases, many people believe that the dodgy ITE regulation can be used as a weapon by those in power to curb the voices of the people.

Similar (or even stricter) internet regulations can be found in Vietnam, where any online activities deemed “against the interests of the state” can land somebody in jail.

(Sources: Jakarta Globe, Jakarta Post, Kompas, AJI Indonesia)

(Editing by Paul Bischoff)



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