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Indonesia: Proposal to Resurrect Law Against Insulting President

(Aug. 14, 2015) Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has recently proposed reviving a provision that criminalizes insulting the president. The provision was in effect during the regime of Suharto, whose dictatorial rule lasted from 1967 to 1998, and punished public insults to the president with prison terms of up to five years. It was repealed by a Constitutional Court decision in 2006. The plan to reinstitute it generated considerable criticism on social media . (Outrage in Indonesia at Bid to Revive Presidential Insult Law, JAKARTA POST (Aug. 6, 2015); Suharto, President of Indonesia, ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA (Jan. 16, 2015).) A similar proposal was considered in 2012 but dropped in the face of public opposition to what people viewed as its vague wording. (Indonesia: Law to Criminalize Insulting President Opposed, GHANAWEB (Aug. 5, 2015).)

The provision would be revived as article 23 of a much longer law that has already been sent to the legislature. The draft article includes the words, “anyone publicly insulting the president or vice president is facing a jail term of up to 5 years.” (Article on ‘Insult of a President’ a Drag on Democracy: Jimly, ANTARA NEWS (Aug. 6, 2015).)

Defense of the Proposal

Widodo stated of the plan to reestablish the rule, “[t]his is to protect both those who want to criticise … and also the president as a symbol of the nation in the long term, not just me.” (Indonesia: Law to Criminalize Insulting President Opposed, supra.) According to a government spokesman, Teten Masduki, not everyone who voices criticism would be charged with a crime. He suggested that “those who want to keep the government in check for the public interest will not be criminalized … . But if the criticism amounts to slander, that can be charged.” (Id.)

Opposition to the Proposal

The proposal has been criticized in the legislature and by civil society groups. Prominent opposition legislator Fadli Zon said that the draft article would violate the Constitution by limiting freedoms guaranteed in that document. (Id.) Andreas Harsono, a human rights activist, called the proposal a “step backward” for freedom of expression, and warned that Widodo would lose support by pursuing it. (Id.) Haris Azhar, the chair of the human rights group Kontras, said “[t]he president should and must be able to be criticised because he, as the head of the government, is running an agenda that concerns the public.” (Outrage in Indonesia at Bid to Revive Presidential Insult Law, supra.)

Speaking on August 5, 2015, former Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court Jimly Asshiddiqie raised the concern that, if re-adopted, the provision would be misused by law enforcement agencies and would hamper democratization of the country. He stated, “[i]n practice law enforcement officers are more aggressive than the president. Police are active in making arrest even if the president does not feel being insulted [sic].” (Article on ‘Insult of President’ a Drag on Democracy: Jimly, supra.) Asshiddiqie went on to say that the idea of outlawing insults is “very feudalistic” and based on the notion that the ruler as an individual is the symbol of the state. (Id.)