Indonesia’s Communications and Information Technology Minister Rudiantara once again finds himself at the center of a muddled debate about internet censorship. This time around, it’s not pornography that’s causing the stir, but “radical content”
In a March 30 statement on the ministry’s website, Rudiantara announced he had blocked 22 Islamic media websites upon the request from Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency, or BNPT, for containing “radical content.” According to CNN Indonesia, the BNPT follows four criteria to classify radical content: “advocating quick action with violent means in the name of religion; denouncing non-Muslims as infidels; supporting, promoting or inviting to join ISIS/IS; false or limited interpretation of jihad.”
If Rudiantara expected praise for his office’s swift and decisive action against the spread of radicalism, he was wrong. Instead, the minister became the target of sharp criticism from various sides.
Concerned citizens voiced their anger on social media, some questioning the practice of blocking, others arguing that at least some of the sites did not classify as radical. Civil society organizations also condemned the blocking procedure, arguing that the ministry’s action was too swift and lacked legal basis. Political opponents leaped onto the opportunity to suggest some high-level conspiracy behind the joint BNPT/Rudiantara move. Even Rudiantara’s predecessor to the office, Tifatul Sembiring, publicly criticized Rudiantara on a TV talk show. Sembiring argued that the sites should have been evaluated by other institutions, for example the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Somewhat ironically, Sembiring himself had been responsible for various unpopular blocking decisions, including those of Vimeo and Reddit.
When even Vice President Jusuf Kalla joined the chorus of critics, condemning not the practice of blocking itself, but the rushed procedure, Rudiantara was sidelined. He quickly announced the formation of independent panels consisting of government officials, religious leaders, and prominent civil society representatives who would weigh in on the final decision to block access to sites from now on. CNN Indonesia published the names of the members of these panels on April 4. It remains unclear whether it means the content of the 22 Islamic media sites in question will be re-evaluated by said panel.
As of press time, 21 of the sites remain blocked, at least when accessed through one of Indonesia’s major ISPs First Media. One of the sites, indonesiasupportislamicatate.blogspot.com, is accessible. Curiously, the single post it contains is entirely unrelated to any form of religious expression. It’s a post about wedding dresses. It’s possible that other content was modified or deleted in the meantime.
The back-and-forth between media, the minister and other senior politicians at times took comic proportions, with Rudiantara back-pedaling and using his being on a trip out of town as an explanation for the hasty compliance with BNPT’s request.
What does it mean?
It’s true that when compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors, Indonesia enjoys relatively unhindered access to online information. In Freedom House’s 2013 “Freedom of the Internet” report, Indonesia ranks second in terms of internet freedom in Southeast Asia, surpassed only by the Philippines.
But this doesn’t mean Indonesians should consider themselves lucky and accept that sites will be blocked by government intervention. As of now, the legal basis for the government’s right to block certain sites is still in question. Currently this basis is formed by the ministerial regulation number 19 from July 17 2014. It does state that government bodies, such as the BNPT, can ask to block sites with content they deem “negative” via the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, who then orders ISPs to block the sites.
However, regulation 19/2014 is still under review by the constitutional court. A number of civil society organizations, including the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and Indonesia ITC Watch, contended it for various reasons, one of them being that it failed to provide a clear definition of what “negative content” is supposed to be. So the final jury about the legality of this regulation is still out.
The regulation 19/2014 is not the only source of concern for Indonesian citizens and their right to freedom of expression and access to information. Since its inception, the broader 2008 Information and Electronic Transactions Law has seen 35 people be criminally prosecuted for online defamation, with figures rising from 10 in 2012 to 17 in 2013, according to a Freedom House report. Recent prosecutions based on this law have been absurd, for instance leading one woman to receive a 5-month jail sentence and fine for telling a friend her husband was beating her in a private Facebook chat. Both the 2008 ITE law and the 19/2014 regulation need review, and minister Rudiantara, have repeatedly said this was on the agenda for 2015. However, it seems the revisions he has in mind are only minimal.
Editing by Josh Horwitz
This post was originally published on Tech in Asia.
Featured Image Credit: Helen Harrop / Shutterstock