New criminal code: A threat to academic and other freedoms?

The new criminal code, approved by Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR) on 6 December, makes it a criminal offence to insult the country’s president, vice president and government institutions, and academics and students fear that it could be used to silence all criticism of the government and its policies, further curtailing freedom of expression and other rights.

The criminal code or KUHP (the Indonesian acronym for Book of Criminal Law) replaces the criminal code inherited from Dutch colonial rule. It has attracted most attention in the media for its outlawing of extramarital sex (a guilty finding can mean a year in prison for the accused). But academics are most concerned about Chapter 218, which targets those who challenge “the honour and dignity” of the president or vice president, except if done in “the public interest or self-defence”.

The offence carries a potential prison term of three years.

“As we can see, criticism of the president is often regarded as defamation or an insult,” Asep Saeful Muhtadi, professor of communication at the State Islamic University of Bandung, told University World News.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly called Jokowi, has been the target of criticism from politicians, academics and activists for his policies, statements, communication ability, and even his demeanor.

“We cannot deny that the article on insulting the president in the new criminal code is intended to tone down the criticism,” according to Muhtadi.

State ideology

Over the past two years, a number of critics and activists have been under police investigation on defamation charges. The police have used the 2008 Electronic Transactions Law (UU ITE) to curb criticism. The Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet), together with other civil society organisations, recorded 217 cases of people charged with defamation under the UU ITE law in 2020, and 108 cases between January and March of 2021 alone.

Expressing ideas or thoughts that contradict the state ideology of ‘Pancasila’ is also considered a criminal act under the new criminal code.

“It is very easy to label a thought or idea as contradicting Pancasila. Any thoughts seen as a threat to power can be claimed as being ‘anti-Pancasila’,” Muhtadi said.

However, Albert Aries, head of the KUHP socialisation team under the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, defended the code, arguing it guarantees freedom of thought and differences of opinion because it is “not contrary” to the constitution.

“What is meant by the article [on Pancasila] is to spread, develop and call on others to take up Communism or other ideologies that contradict the Pancasila and use it as the basis for political or social organisation to invalidate the Pancasila,” Aries told University World News.

Chilling effect on academic freedom

But Muhtadi’s main concern is the likely chilling effect on intellectual discourse, including the intensity of discussions, research, debate and academic freedom in general.

“Even before the new Criminal Code bill passed into law, lecturers, deans, rectors and universities officials avoided criticising the government, let alone after the legal consequences became clear,” he said.

“Believe it or not, the article that bans the expression of thoughts and ideas that contradict the state ideology Pancasila will be used for screening [individuals] in the selection of lecturers and university officials,” according to Muhtadi. “And we will see bureaucrats on campuses, not intellectuals. I think we are witnessing it now.”

“Whosoever expresses their will in public by saying, writing, or through any media to negate or change the Pancasila as the state foundation is subject to criminal punishment of five years in prison,” Article 1 Chapter 190 of the new criminal code states.

Journalists and activists, who are the most likely to be targeted by the law, see it as one of the most repressive aspects of the new criminal code.

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