In the past couple of days Indonesian media touched upon the government’s proposal to revive a law that had been removed by Indonesia’s Constitutional Court in 2006. This law makes the act of insulting the Indonesian president an illegal act and can lead to prison sentences and fines. Criticism on the government’s proposal immediately emerged as several legislators and human rights activists fear that freedom of speech will be curtailed in the young democracy. Moreover, it can further erode public support for President Joko Widodo.
In 2014 President Joko Widodo, often referred to as Jokowi, won Indonesia’s presidential election (narrowly) on promises to combat corruption in government circles and implement structural reforms in order to boost economic growth back to +7 percent year-on-year. However, after nine months in office, it turns out that Jokowi cannot perform miracles. Economic growth in the second quarter of 2015 slowed to 4.67 percent (y/y), a six-year low, due to international and domestic factors, while it remains tough for him to tackle bureaucratic hurdles (although it is highly likely that performance in the remainder of the year will improve as there are signs that government-led infrastructure development has begun to pick up since May 2015). But as the Indonesian people did not see significant changes (except for high inflation after Widodo largely scrapped fuel subsidies) his approval rating fell to 41 percent from 72 percent after his election according to one of the many opinion polls.
Based on Indonesian media Widodo’s reaction to the law was mixed. Reportedly, he supports the revival of the law and was quoted saying “this [law] is to protect both people that want to criticize and also the president, being the symbol of the Indonesian nation, in the long term, not just me.” But Widodo also said that during his political career he has been criticized, insulted, and mocked on a daily basis but accepts this as ‘part of the job’ and has no intention to act against these people.
A spokesman of the government emphasized that those who express words to keep the government in check for the public interest will not be affected by this law, but when it involves slander then the person could be charged. However, obviously, the boundary between both such cases is vague and therefore would give the government power to curb criticism and support self-censorship.
Jimly Asshiddiqie, a former Chairman of the Indonesian Constitutional Court, said it requires cautiousness of the government to revive the old law. He argues that in this case the presidency should be regarded as an institution, not as an individual with personal feelings, and therefore it cannot be offended by people’s words. Regarding humiliations, slander, etc. Indonesia already has laws that deal with these subjects for all citizens (including the president).
The proposal to revive the controversial law was actually tabled in 2012 during the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration and automatically shifts to the new government as it has not been dealt with yet. It is now scheduled to be discussed in Indonesian parliament in August 2015. However, it seems unlikely that the government tries to act against a verdict of the Constitutional Court (which scrapped the law in 2006) and re-introduces such a vague and controversial law.
The law that makes insulting the president an illegal act originates from the authoritarian New Order regime when President Suharto ruled the country with an iron fist and accepted few dissident opinions. In the 1990s Suharto gradually lost grip on Indonesian society as the population became increasingly educated and more politically active. The process of Suharto’s sliding power was sped up by the Asian Financial Crisis which started as a financial crisis but rapidly turned into an economic, social and political crisis.
When the Indonesian Constitutional Court dropped the law in 2006 it was actually ahead of certain western countries. In mid-2013, France dropped a similar law after the court ruled that the government had violated the right to freedom of expression when a man holding a cardboard sign - stating then-President Nicolas Sarkozy to get lost - was charged for insulting the president based on a 1881 law.