EDITORIAL: After 'reformasi', timidity

Editorial Desk in Jakarta/The Jakarta Post
Asia News Network

Jakarta (The Jakarta Post/ANN) ¿ For all the freedoms gained (or so we thought) after ending authoritarianism, we are becoming increasingly fearful. We continue to learn from blunders on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. But on Thursday, one Facebook user, the owner of the "Ateis Minang" account, was sent to jail. Indonesia's new message: One cannot legally discuss God's existence in public.

A district court in Sijunjung regency, West Sumatra, sentenced Alexander Aan, 32, to two-and-a-half years in prison and a fine of 100 million rupiah (US$10,600) for spreading religious hatred, and publicly declaring himself an atheist. The civil servant was charged with violating the 2008 Law on Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE), by spreading information causing hatred and enmity against individuals and groups based on ethnic affiliations, religion, race and societal groups.

The presiding judge, Eka Prasetya Budi Dharma, stated, "We consider that he acted deliberately, as he did not delete [the information] after protestors reported it to police ..." He cited several postings deemed defamatory of the Prophet Muhammad as de facto violations of the law, which carries a maximum of six years imprisonment.

Alexander is the latest victim of the controversial law, which was first used against Prita Mulyasari, a housewife who had e-mailed complaints about a hospital's service to her friends.

The 2008 law has heavier penalties than the defamation clauses found in the old Criminal Code (KUHP), the maximum sentence being nine months; and the 1965 blasphemy law, which carries a maximum of five years imprisonment. Outrage against the potential criminalization of criticism and healthy debate in Indonesia's era of freedom has yet to lead to changes in the ITE law in this regard.

Alexander may have spread religious hatred - yet the ruling still leaves more questions about Indonesia's limits on the freedom of speech and expression and our capacity for intellectual debate.

Alexander says he is a member of the Minangkabau ethnic group, known not only for religious devotion, but also its enthusiasm for debate.

On Thursday, this paper carried the image of the burning hundreds of copies of Douglas Wilson's Five Cities That Ruled the World - a book withdrawn by its publisher after receiving complaints that it was considered "blasphemous" against Islam. As in the controversy over The Da Vinci Code, why were the opinions in Five Cities not contested by other books? Why did a leading university ban discussions of a book on Islam by Canadian author Irshad Manji? The resulting message to the world has become, "Indonesians silence 'deviance' by force".

Unless we a see an immediate, widespread movement supporting freedom of speech and expression - including public discourse on whether God exists - Alexander is better off behind bars, away from the threat of self-righteous thugs.