Thin-skinned Widodo in Indonesia: Messengers beware

Mar 3, 2021

The first who told of Lucullus’ coming so angered Tigranes that he had the messenger’s head, effectively ensuring no one brought bad news. Deprived of fresh intelligence Tigranes watched while war raged, listening only to flatterers.

Indonesian activists who haven’t read Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus will recognise their predicaments when facing President Joko Widodo, stand-in for the first century BC King of Armenia.

Widodo comes across as humble, serious about improving the sprawling archipelago’s infrastructure. His determination to build roads, rails and ports deserves applause, which he enjoys.

Unfortunately he hasn’t done well at social engineering and pandemic control, so no clapping. He’s had a Chinese Covid-19 jab, but that’s ineffective against the virus of hubris. So when he asked for public feedback, few have clicked SEND.

The infection originated from media tycoon and Nasdem (National Democrat) Party founder Surya Paloh, 69, whose role is kingmaker, not candidate. He’s from the north Sumatra province of Aceh; the convention has only Javanese in Jakarta’s White House.

Shortly after Widodo won the top job standing for the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), Paloh suggested the Constitution be changed, letting the President serve more than two five-year terms.

Widodo said ‘no’, knowing he’d never get backing from his party’s matriarch Megawati Soekarnoputri, 74. She wants her dull daughter Puan Maharani, 47, currently Speaker of the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR House of Representatives) to contest the presidency in the 2024 election.

Paloh’s obsequiousness must have gone to Widodo’s head because he’s losing his sheen as a man of the people. This image once put clear air between himself and his arrogant rival, former General Prabowo Subianto, beating the oligarch 55 to 45 per cent in the direct vote.

In 2015 during his first term Widodo hosted Malcolm Turnbull, showing off his commoner’s credentials by taking the PM on a signature blusukan. This was a supposedly unstaged public market meet-the-wee-folk walkabout. Those stunts are long gone as Widodo becomes more aloof.

The blusukan delighted a tie-less Turnbull, who snapped selfies with cheerful traders. However, it horrified the security detail trying to handle the unconstrained crowds. The crew cuts who wear sunnies at night and think this makes them invisible started urging more discipline.

They weren’t alone. Jakarta palace functionaries had been urging their boss to be esteemed by all, and not just the riff-raff. A preferred portrayal would be more like Kim Jong-un surrounded by fawning geriatric generals scribbling down the Dear Leader’s inspiring instructions as he tours another missile site.

No journos in those staged shots from Pyongyang. In Jakarta, the unkempt media youngsters thrusting smartphones don’t show enough respect for the guy who runs the world’s third-largest democracy.

In 2018 a law was passed making it illegal to ‘disrespect Parliament or its members’. Unnecessary – just tickle an old one – the 2008 Informasi dan Transaksi Elektronik (ITE) Law. It’s supposed to regulate online deals, but includes a defamation and insults clause with up to four years’ jail for offenders.

After autocrat Soeharto quit in 1998, new media legislation gave some protection to journos and publishers facing malicious litigants. The independent National Press Council was tasked with settling disputes outside the courts, yet the ITE law takes precedence.

Rights’ activists reckon this threatens free speech. Andre Arditya, political editor of The Conversation’s Indonesian edition, wrote:

‘The ITE Law is one of the largest barriers to freedom of expression in Indonesia. The article of defamation and the article of hate speech in the ITE Law are most widely used as the basis for criminal reporting.

‘ … (Widodo has) completely ignored criticism from the public against him. If there is a response, it usually takes the form of threats, intimidation and arrest of critics.’

In 2018, a teenager in Sumatra was reportedly sentenced to 18 months’ jail for insulting Widodo on Facebook.

Last year South Kalimantan online local media editor Diananta Putra Sumedi was sentenced to 14 weeks’ jail for his reporting of a land dispute, even though the Press Council had apparently resolved the issue.

Last year Amnesty International claimed to have found 29 cases of harassment and intimidation against academics and journos across two months:

‘The right to freedom of expression has already been on a decline in Indonesia in recent years, which is exemplified by the increasing number of people convicted of defamation, blasphemy and makar (treason) simply for expressing their opinions online or organizing peaceful protests between 2014 and 2019.’

Widodo has neutered parliamentary criticism by making Subianto Defence Minister, and handing goodies to small parties. Veteran Australian academic and writer Max Lane, who lives in Indonesia, has listed the President’s surviving antagonists:

‘The social justice wing of civil society – human rights and environmental NGOs, student activists and the smaller more activist trade unions – and some media, such as the Tempo group.’

As in Australia, defamation is an arena to play word games. In Indonesia, it’s been used against journos who expose government corruption, big business wrongdoings and remind potential investors that hazards abound in the Republic’s rugged corporate and legal jungle.

Reporters Sans Frontiéres’ World Press Freedom Index puts Indonesia 119 among 180 countries. (Australia is 28th.) The Economist Intelligence Unit has Indonesia recording the lowest democracy score for 14 years. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranks Indonesia 102 out of 180 countries.

Widodo may be getting concerned about overseas perceptions of his democracy lest they affect his bid for more foreign investors, already spooked by his mishandling of the pandemic, putting health of the economy above the wellbeing of citizens.

Human Rights Watch says the response has been weak, with low testing and tracing rates, and little transparency. Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centre reports 1.3 million cases and close to 35,000 deaths, the highest levels in Southeast Asia.

In a speech earlier this month Widodo pondered the possibility of asking the DPR to revise the ITE law ‘if it is proven that the legislation has not provided a sense of justice’.

So far little has happened apart from delegating a police chief to write guidelines, possibly not the ideal person to advise on free speech and media rights.

Widodo’s comments are, as usual, too vague to decode with certainty. Does the President want the ITE Law to be refined to appease critics – or further strengthened to shut them down? The man is Javanese, and his words fit a culture famously opaque. Tigranes was too direct.

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