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Some Remarks on Our Freedom

For the first time ever since 2006, the Freedom House lowered Indonesia’s freedom status from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’. This is the same with our status during the early period of our country’s democratic transition (1998-2005). In other words, we are currently experiencing backward trend. One of the reasons why Indonesia’s freedom status is declining is due to government’s decision to legalise Mass Organisation Act (hereinafter called ‘the Act’) in mid-2013, which one of its implications is the restriction towards the freedom-to-gather-and-to-unite. Despite the strong protest from various community groups, the government decided to legalise the Act.

The legalisation of the Act is the culmination of strained relationship between the government and the public on one side, and between different groups within the public themselves on the other. Some groups view that we have been enjoying excessive freedom, both in expressing our opinions and in forming a union.

Some others view the freedom that we are currently experiencing is in accordance with the constitution and the regulations, and therefore, it would be unnecessary to create new rules which may restrict our freedom. It seems the lobby from the groups who desire limitation on the current level of freedom is stronger, and therefore, the government listen to their aspiration.

The groups who support the Act argue that it is necessary to have a much clearer regulation regarding mass organisation and how important it is to give firm sanction against the organisations which disobey such regulation. For example, the Act could be used to disband violent mass organisations such as Islamic Defender Front (Front Pembela Islam/FPI).

However, this argument is clearly out of proportion and lack of direction. Dealing with FPI is not by disbanding it. As long as the police and other law enforcement agencies are not firm in their handling against FPI-related perpetrators, the criminal cases will keep on occurring. The easy way to deal with FPI is by arresting their perpetrating leaders and members, and not by disbanding its organisation itself.

There is a tendency that the government wants to look for a shortcut, but makes a wrong diagnosis in the process. Those who suffer the most with the Act are not FPI or other similarly-violent organisations, but the people who truly intend to build their organisations and establish their unions. Several sections in the Act not only limit the intention of the people in building their organisations, but also threaten the existing mass organisations which the government deems unlawful.

For example, Section 59 verse 2 states that “It is forbidden for a mass organisation to misuse, insult, or taint any nationally-recognised religions in Indonesia”. This section potentially creates repressive actions towards religious mass organisations which are deemed as “heretic” and “taint the nationally-recognised religions in Indonesia”. Furthermore, this section will strengthen discriminative actions against such organisations, including Ahmadiyah and Syiah.

Capital Punishment

Mass Organisation Act is one of the main challenges for President Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s administration, especially in nurturing and improving freedom in this country. The first step that they must do is by supporting the efforts in conducting judicial review towards the Act through Constitutional Court, which actually have been done by some mass organisations.

As odd as it may seem, since it was the government who legalised the Act, Jokowi must firmly state his position that he does not agree with such freedom-threatening Act. Jokowi must show that he is serious in supporting every single public effort which fights for the freedom in this country.

Besides the Act, another despairing situation related to the freedom in Indonesia is Jokowi’s helplessness in handling the issue of capital punishment against several narcotic-related convicted criminals. Jokowi’s decision to agree with capital punishment shows that how he does not comprehend the basic concept of human rights. Human life is part of the very essential rights classified as ‘non-derogable’ in any circumstances.

Basic human rights such as life are not something that could be given by the states to its citizens, and therefore, the state cannot take them away in any circumstances. Argument that capital punishment is applied not only in Indonesia but also in other countries cannot be justified. The general spirit developed in the international law is the effort to abolish capital punishment. It seems that Jokowi ignore this fact.

Freedom of the Press

Currently, Indonesia is also experiencing decline in the freedom of the press. According to Press Freedom Index 2015 published by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), Indonesia’s rank is positioned at 138, below Thailand, Afghanistan, and Uganda. This rank is worse than last year, whereas we were positioned at 132. Since 2011, the condition of the press freedom is truly awful. Back in 2002, Indonesia was ranked at 57, in which the country was considered to have the most freedom for their press in South East Asia.

Why this condition is not getting any better for the past five years? Why we keep on experiencing decline, while since the beginning of the Reform Era, it has been made easier to obtain a permit to establish a mass media, the number of printed and electronic media grows exponentially, and there are more and more radio broadcast and TV stations? The indicator of the press freedom is not determined by the number of the media, but also by the living condition of the press workers, the media quality, and the public behaviour towards the media.

In term of protection for the press workers, Indonesia is one of the worst in the world. The murder cases against journalists in the conflicted areas such as Aceh and Papua happened on a regular basis from 2003 to 2005. The journalists also must put their lives at stake when they cover crucial issues related to the major corporations, such as mining and plantation.

The cases of ill-treatment and murder against journalists happened for a several times during the coverage of fuel smuggling and illegal logging in 2010. If it was not done by the capital owners, then it was by the state apparatus who feel their interests were threatened by such coverage.

In addition, our media is not completely free just yet. The threat against media freedom does not come from the “ruler” (the government) like during Soeharto-era anymore, but from the public themselves, especially those who are unhappy with the content of the publication or even with some certain media.

The assault case against Playboy magazine’s office which led to the incarceration of its editor is a real example how a community group within the public could become a serious threat against the freedom of the press. Major players in media business such as Tempo also receive threats from the people who do not like their publications. The most recent case of threat (this time involving a bomb) occurred last January which befell Voice of America (VoA) Indonesia.

Several policies and behaviour of the government also contributes to the poor record of our press freedom. During the second term of then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY)’s administration, the government represented by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (Kemkominfo) repeatedly created blunders by releasing statements which put the freedom of expression in the corner.

The statement of then-Minister Tifatul Sembiring which expressed his intention to control social media after he accused them for disrupting national stability reminds the public of Soeharto. His action in banning several websites is regarded as backward steps which deny the people’s freedom in accessing information.

With all the notes and backgrounds mentioned above, the challenge that Jokowi must deal with is certainly not easy. First of all, he must ask himself whether or not he is willing to sacrifice his popularity in order to preserve the principles of freedom. He must learn (again) to be wiser than what he has done in dealing with the capital punishment issue.

Secondly, Jokowi’s administration should be luckier than SBY’s, whereas political situation and national security is generally more conducive. Conflicts and tensions in Aceh and Papua have been relatively handled well. Jokowi could pour his energy to improve the enforcement of the law, including by protecting the freedom of the press workers. The cases of torture and threat against the press workers must be processed and brought to justice in due course.

Last but not least, Jokowi must be brave to step out of the shadow of the SBY-era’s moralist policies regarding communication and information. The function and purpose of Kemkominfo is not to act as a moral guardian, but to help the people to access the information that they require as easy and low-cost as possible.