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Indonesia has updated its criminal code with a raft of free speech restrictions


Indonesia has updated its criminal code with a number of free speech restrictions. The human rights community says the new legislation is threatening the country's democracy. NPR's Julie McCarthy has the story.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: In this era of global democratic retreat, Indonesia watchers say President Joko Widodo, who was reelected in 2019 on promises of inclusion, is not interested in hearing challenges to his government and is presiding over a Democratic backsliding. Amnesty International Indonesia director Usman Hamid says the new measure that criminalizes speech that attacks the honor or dignity of the president effectively gags the citizenry.

USMAN HAMID: It's how to make sure the law can give those in power authority to suppress opinions that they don't like.

MCCARTHY: Hamid says it's not just the president who can file a criminal complaint, it's a crime to dishonor the vice president, the parliament, the supreme court and the constitutional court, punishable up to three years. Thailand imposes up to 15 years for insulting the dignity of the king under the crime of lese-majeste, literally injuring the crown or head of state. But Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, while Indonesia is a democracy. And Hamid says the very application of such laws in Indonesia turns the idea of who is the sovereign on its head.

HAMID: And a president under democratic system is accountable to the people and which the people hold the sovereignty. And the people have the right to question anyone they elected as a president.

MCCARTHY: Anger over the perceived anti-democratic turn exploded in 2019 in the biggest demonstrations in decades.


MCCARTHY: Students doubting Widodo's commitment to civil liberties took to the streets to protest harsh penalties for proposed new crimes, including insulting the president and having sex outside of marriage. Open, open, open the door of parliament, they demanded. And President Widodo pulled the bill. Fast-forward three years and parliament this month approved a massive overhaul of the criminal code.


UNIDENTIFIED POLITICIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: With the deputy speaker gaveling the bill to passage. It's not clear whether mass protests at the door of parliament would even be legal under this new legislation, which makes disrupting lawful meetings a crime. Sana Jaffrey, with the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, says the risks for direct action are getting higher. She says minorities such as the LGBTQ community, already vulnerable under rising religious conservatism, are especially in danger. And Jaffrey says the code will be used selectively to deal with difficult critics and political opponents.

SANA JAFFREY: But the broader effect of the law is that it creates fear. And it compels people, critics to mind their own words.

MCCARTHY: Rights experts say the most serious new provision is the ban against promoting views that conflict with the official state ideology, which prizes unity and harmony - the penalty, up to 15 years in prison. Supporters of the new code hail it as ridding Indonesians of the system of laws used by their former Dutch colonizers. But critics say the revisions contained in the new code amount to authoritarianism disguised in the form of anti-colonialism. Again, Sana Jaffrey.

JAFFREY: That's one of the ironies of this, that it has been sold to the public as something that has purged Indonesia of its colonial past, which is a really powerful thing to sell because Indonesia is a country that, you know, much like the United States, fought a war of independence against its colonizer.

MCCARTHY: The new code takes effect in three years, during which time judges, police and other enforcers will be trained in its hundreds of articles, the text of which human rights defenders say is too often vague. What speech, for example, constitutes dishonoring the president? The constitutional court threw out an anti-insult measure in 2006. But legal experts say it's not likely to do it again. They say the court is losing its independence in the new, more repressive climate. Human Rights Watch Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono says the consequences could be dire.

ANDREAS HARSONO: If this law is not amended in the next three years, democracy is dead. This is a leap backward and off the cliff.

MCCARTHY: Sana Jaffrey says that's possible but not likely, as Indonesians have a way of pushing back. What we're witnessing in Indonesia, Jaffrey says, is not a sudden death of democracy, but Indonesia getting stuck in a low-quality democracy.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.