Lampooners beware – politicians’ dignity is precious

Jun 16, 2021

A cutting cartoon by Cathy Wilcox in The Age this month had a figure looking like Scott Morrison in the first frame saying: ‘And Jenny said to me, you have to think of this as a father first.’ In the second the PM adds: ‘And I thought: Don’t be ridiculous. These girls don’t look anything like my daughters.’

Though there are no names most readers would assume the reference is to the ‘Biloela Family’ the ‘unlawful maritime arrivals’ who’ve been in detention on Christmas Island since 2019 at a reported cost of AUD 6.7 million.

The slightly hidden message is that Morrison doesn’t recognise Tharunicaa and Kopika Murugappan as equal to Lily and Abbey Morrison, though all four girls were born in Australia.

The Murugappans and their supporters think Biloela in South Queensland is their home. The PM believes the kids should be in Sri Lanka, a country they’ve never visited but the land of their Tamil parents Priya and Nades.

There are many interpretations of Wilcox’s commentary. The most charitable suggests the PM can’t see similarities because his children are adolescents and bigger than the pre-schoolers, or he can’t identify with non-Anglo names. The more troubling reading is that the leader of Australia is not colour-blind, so by imputation a racist and uncaring – libels indeed.

The award-winning veteran cartoonist wouldn’t expect her door to be kicked in by police if Morrison his colleagues seized on the second analysis and claimed it denigrated the PM and his office.

But that fate could await cartoonists and commentators plying their trade in Indonesia. A draft version of changes to the Kitab Undang-undang Hukum Pidana (Criminal Code) under consideration by the Parliament has severe penalties for anyone insulting the Republic’s elected representatives.

The top fine is AUD 18,000 and 42 months in jail for insulting President Joko Widodo’s ‘dignity’, with extras if the real or imagined slur stirs the public to react.

Although the proposed penalties have angered human rights activists, revising the Criminal Code is long overdue. Indonesia has been an independent nation since 1949 yet still uses much of the Wetboek van Strafrecht voor Nederlandsch-Indie, the Criminal Code introduced by the Dutch colonial administration in 1918.

Among many prohibitions the Indonesian Code criminalises consensual extramarital sex, promotion of contraceptives for adolescents, abortion, drug use and blasphemy. Revisions have been regularly proposed since 1958 but so far no massive shake-up. Women’s groups, civil rights activists, lawyers, medicos, religious organisations and others jostle to get their voices of concern heard in an increasingly conservative legislature.

Blasphemy is the all-purpose weapon, loaded by anyone with a grudge announcing a rival said something unpalatable, then fired by those fearing mob rule. (There’s no space here for antipodean smugness. Although federal blasphemy laws were repealed in 1995 the offence apparently remains in some states.)

Blasphemy was spectacularly used to jail Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (aka Ahok) for two years in 2017 after an edited video of a speech he gave was used in a massive campaign to destroy his reputation. As a target Ahok was a godsend – an ethnic Chinese Christian, boss of the huge city workforce that’s mainly Muslim.

Fundamentalists believe Muslims should not be supervised by people of other faiths.

Before being brought down Ahok was known as a clean and efficient administrator, though brusque. As vice-governor he inherited the top job when Widodo resigned as governor to successfully contest the 2014 presidential election.

When Ahok was being slandered by radicals, Widodo didn’t speak up for his former colleague and friend. This dismayed the millions of supporters who’d dressed the President in cloaks of human rights and democracy only to find they didn’t fit.

Widodo is no longer the humble furniture trader from a small inland town but part of the oligarchy that controls the nation of 273 million through great wealth and patronage. He’s good at practical things like building roads, rail lines and ports, but indifferent to abstract matters, leaving these to his party’s chair Megawati Soekarnoputri.

The nation’s fifth president (2001-2004) and daughter of founding president Soekarno is the nation’s iron-fisted matriarch. She who must be obeyed is reportedly supporting moves to sack long-standing employees of the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (Corruption Eradication Commission) for allegedly failing to pass civics tests.

In the past, the KPK has been spectacularly successful in prosecuting politicians with their hands in the public till. Several have been members of Soekarnoputri’s party. Once the nation’s most trusted agency, the graft-fighter has been slowly neutered by staff and law changes since Widodo won a second five-year term in 2019.

Without a champion, the defenders of democracy are having a hard time – as shown by The Economist’s Democracy Index. The 2020 report ‘In Sickness and in Health?’ labels Indonesia a ‘flawed democracy’ edging deeper into the mire.

The Index has five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. Based on their scores, countries are classified as full or flawed democracies, hybrid or authoritarian regimes.

Political scientist Fadhilah Fitri Primandari, a senior researcher at CoronaNet Research (an international project collecting government responses to Covid-19), claims the government’s approach to democratic practice is too narrow.

‘The Indonesian public is largely excluded from policymaking processes … the Omnibus bill on job creation was drafted without significant public consultation, and with the National Police tasked with monitoring controversy and actively dissuading opposition to the bill. Protests following the bill’s ratification were met with repression.’

This year the government banned the hardline anti-pluralist Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front) which now threatens to reappear under a new name.

Added Primandari: ‘Such events have impacted people’s willingness to engage with politics outside of elections and to criticise the government — vital features of a strong democracy.’

A poll last year by Indikator Politik Indonesia showed almost 70 per cent of respondents thought citizens were becoming more fearful of voicing their opinions. That includes professionals, like academics, journalists – and cartoonists.

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