Indonesian cyberlaw enables real world misconduct

Advocates claim a 2008 statute to regulate electronic transactions favours the powerful and wealthy and is used to settle scores and silence critics

Johannes Nugroho
August 16, 2022
Indonesian cyberlaw enables real world misconduct
Indonesian cyber crime police displays one of the suspects of fake news and online hate speech, in Jakarta. Photo: Bay Ismoyo/AFP

It never occurred to Anwari that asking a question would land him in trouble with the law. 

The Indonesian owner of an internet provider service was found guilty by a court on 7 July for defamation and sentenced to a year in prison. He was indicted under Indonesia’s cyberlaw, known as UU ITE.

“My case has made it abundantly clear that our cyberlaw has some of the most elastic clauses which can be stretched to suit any charges,” Anwari said, adding that he believed there was collusion between law enforcers and his accuser.

As cyberthreats continue to grow globally, Indonesia is one of a number of countries that has attempted to increase its grip on digital governance. Abuse of the country’s cyberlaws by litigious citizens also has raised concerns over unfair sentencing. 

Responding to public criticism, President Joko Widodo said he supported revisions to the law in February 2021 and sent a letter to parliament requesting amendments to UU ITE.

“If the current cyberlaw doesn’t deliver justice, I will then encourage the House of Representatives to put forward the necessary revisions,” Widodo said.

The saga of Anwari’s penalisation started in 2021 with a business dispute against the manager of an upper-middle-class housing estate in Surabaya over the internet towers operated by Anwari’s company. The manager asked for a 35% cut from Anwari’s gross income from the estate’s residents, which he flatly refused.

“I have heard that this is a common practice with the other internet providers operating on the estate but it’s not exactly above board. I had my legal licence from the state to carry out my business, so I refused to be extorted,” said Anwari, who like many Indonesians only uses one name. 

A pedestrian walks pass an Internet provider’s billboard along a street in Jakarta on February. Photo: Goh Chai hin/AFP

He heard a rumour claiming the estate manager’s husband had been involved in an embezzlement case and owed a large sum of money. Wishing to defuse tension between them, Anwari planned to help pay off the debt as a reconciliatory gesture but first wanted to verify the information. 

He sent WhatsApp messages to several residents and workers at the estate, asking if the rumour was true, and subsequently was served with a warrant for defamation under the state’s cyberlaw. His private WhatsApp messages were used as incriminating evidence.

During her testimony, the plaintiff claimed Anwari’s message had ruined her reputation, despite admitting there were no adverse effects at her workplace as a result. 

The trial dragged on for almost a year, traumatising Anwari in the process.

The conviction rate for Indonesian cyberlaw cases was 96.85 between 2008 and 2020, with 88% of the defendants serving jail time, according to data from the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform.

Anindya Joediono, deputy chair of PAKU ITE, an organisation advocating for revisions to Indonesia’s cyberlaw, said the use of the statute passed in 2008 has strayed from its intended purposes.

“It was formulated to regulate electronic transactions and the use of electronic data as internet use in Indonesia increased,” Joediono said. “Instead, it is now being used to settle personal scores, to silence government critics, to prosecute complaining customers and so on.”

The current version of the cyberlaw has failed in its mission to deliver justice and is often subverted to produce the opposite result, according to Joediono. 

It has also  produced some outlandish cases. Hilda Puspita, a Yogyakarta resident who had recently divorced her husband, changed her Facebook status to “married” to her new boyfriend in 2013.

it is now being used to settle personal scores, to silence government critics, to prosecute complaining customers”

Anindya Joediono, deputy chair of PAKU ITE

Her ex-husband was offended by the post and reported the new couple for defamation. Puspita and her boyfriend were later found guilty and sentenced to three months in jail.

Baiq Nuril, a school teacher from Nusa Tenggara Barat, was sentenced to six months jail time in 2017 for recording a phone conversation in which her head teacher sexually harassed her. 

Nuril was prosecuted for “recording and distributing pornographic material” over a messaging service. She appealed her case to the Supreme Court but lost. After a public outcry, she was granted an amnesty by Widodo in 2019.

Journalist Sadli Saleh from Southeast Sulawesi was given a two-year sentence for exposing a corruption case involving the Regent of Buton in 2020.

These cases were among the most widely reported in Indonesian media and appeared to outrage many people who posted online.

Hosnan, an attorney with Workers’ Legal Aid in Surabaya, said the cyberlaw has many problems, including a tendency to favour the powerful and wealthy.

“I recently had a case in which a complaint by workers against their employer was rejected by the police, despite the fact we had witnesses,” he said.

The case started with an internal company investigation of a theft. The investigators took things too far by confiscating workers’ mobile phones. When the phones were returned, employees found a suspicious app which was determined to be surveillance software.

The workers filed a complaint against the company for cloning their data and installing surveillance software, acts which are illegal under the cyberlaw. Police dismissed the case, citing lack of evidence, Hosnan said. 

To file complaints under the cyberlaw, Indonesians must be prepared to pay high costs.The initial setup, including expert witness costs, could amount to $2,000 (IDR 30 million), while the minimum wage for the Surabaya region is around $300 (IDR 4.4 million) per month, Joediono explained.

PAKU ITE and other advocacy groups including SAFENet and Legal Aid, have spearheaded a campaign asking MPs to expedite the process. The advocacy coalition was granted a hearing in early July by a parliamentary committee in Jakarta to air its grievances.

“We made a recommendation that parliament set up a special committee to draft a new bill. This is important because the drafting process should have been finished last year,” PAKU ITE Chairman Muhammad Arsyad said.

The government and House of Representatives previously agreed to amend the law in 2016, but critics said the changes were superficial.

“The 2016 revision only reduced the maximum sentence for defamation from six years’ imprisonment to four while the clause should have been struck out altogether,” Arsyad said.

Changes to the law will not come soon enough for Anwari, who decided to appeal his conviction and steeled himself for a lengthy legal battle.

“What I’m against is a corrupt system which makes criminalisation an industry,” he said. “I could have bribed my way through if all I wanted was to avoid jail time. But what I want is justice. So, to get this, I’m willing to do it the hard way.”

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