On the State of Digital Authoritarianism in Indonesia and its Contradictions

New Naratif’s Citizen’s Agenda Survey invited more than 1,400 people from all over Indonesia to voice their aspirations. “Digital Rights and Freedom of Expression” consistently ranked in the top five. What are the challenges and opportunities for Indonesians to fight for their digital rights, and why is this such a crucial issue?

Since 17 August 2023, New Naratif has been carrying out The Citizen’s Agenda Indonesia to find out the most important issues facing the country in anticipation of the 2024 General Elections. The results of Stage 1 of our research mapped out 22 of the most important issues raised consistently across the board. In Stage 2, we asked the public to rank the issues according to priority. Now, in Stage 3, we try to understand how the political system in Indonesia responds to these issues.

While never quite ranking as the topmost important issue, Digital Rights and Freedom of Expression came up more frequently and consistently that its final score ranks it the second most important in the country. This is a testament to the perceived dangers of UU ITE, or Indonesia’s Law on Information and Electronic Transactions. The law governs hate speech, defamation, terrorism, pornography, gambling, and other activities all lumped into one. In practice, however, UU ITE—especially its defamation laws—have frequently been used to criminalize activists.

In this Explainer, we will examine the current state and future outlook of digital authoritarianism and freedom of expression in Indonesia. By the end of the article, you will see why digital authoritarianism is a terrible idea even for those who couldn’t care less about criminalized activists, as it will inevitably lead to a crisis.

The Current State of Digital Authoritarianism in Indonesia

Before the news of Prabowo-Gibran’s sweeping electoral victory flooded the nation, democracy activists had a strong reason to celebrate. Fatia Maulidiyanti and Haris Azhar, two of Indonesia’s most influential human rights activists, have been acquitted from all charges.

The two were previously charged with defamation under Indonesia’s infamous UU ITE Law for a video discussing the involvement of Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, in Papua’s mining operations and continued military occupation.

Prosecutors sought 3.5 years for Fatia and four years for Haris. The case, should it go through—as both Fatia and Haris were almost sure they would—would have been a major blow to media freedom in Indonesia, devastating the work of activists across the country. However, this January, two and a half years after the video in question was uploaded, the court finally ruled against the prosecutors.

New Naratif spoke to Fatia and Haris at a Legal Briefing event from our Media Freedom Network. Despite the good news, the two warn against premature celebrations and remind us that we still have a long way to go.

“If it’s a democracy, then these cases will no longer exist.”

Fatia Maulidiyanti

“Yes, me and Fatia, temporarily, we got a good decision, but at the same time, a lot of local friends, the frontiers at some local areas, they’re still being reported to the police, they’re still being tried in some courts in Indonesia. Physical attacks are still happening, digital attacks [as well]. It’s also being weekly news among the CSO communities. One here and the next week will be somebody else,” says Haris.

True enough, on February 11th, one filmmaker and three academic experts involved in the making of Dirty Vote—a two-hour documentary purportedly reporting evidence of voter fraud and election rigging in Indonesia’s 2024 elections—were reported to the police.

“The issue is being able to utilise the article to criminalise people,” Haris adds, referring to the UU ITE Law.

UU ITE and the Threat of Pseudolegality

UU ITE, or the Law for Information and Electronic Transactions, is what Indonesians term “pasal karet” or “elastic laws”. It falls under the same category as what Venezuela’s former Minister of Trade and Industry Moisés Naím (2022) terms pseudolaw (in parallel to pseudoscience): clauses and articles that pervert the law by taking its appearance without the legal rigour to back them.

Southeast Asia has numerous examples of this: the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act in Singapore, the Computer-Related Crime Act and Lèse-majesté in Thailand, the Anti-Terrorism Act in the Philippines, the Sedition Act in Malaysia, and the Unlawful Associations Act in Myanmar, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act in Singapore, among others.

These laws function beyond mere tools to oppress opposing political views. According to Naím, these laws are so elastic they function to undermine the rigour of law itself. 

“Its goal is to muddy the waters, to create just enough murkiness around the legitimacy of a course of action to allow it to go forward, to draw opponents into intractable legal debates accessible only to the elite, to create enough room for doubt for imposition to go forward, and to defang the legal system itself, corrupting it and rendering it meaningless as a check on executive power.”

— Moisés Naím, The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century (2002)

The existence of UU ITE in particular, therefore, should be enough of a red flag to tell us that the threat of digital authoritarianism is alive and well in Indonesia, no matter how many court battles we win.

The upcoming Prabowo-Gibran government has stated no vision regarding digital rights and freedom of expression in Indonesia. Many believe this is because they would benefit from a lack of transparency and accountability regarding their own track record.

With the new regime, Haris Azhar firmly believes that freedom of expression “will be a serious issue” in the near future.

“What kind of Indonesia would [we] be in the next few years? You have the president who had that dirty bad record on human rights, on human rights issues. And still far from accountability. And that accountability is not being developed by the current government,” he tells New Naratif.

A couple of legislative candidates also shared their thoughts with New Naratif regarding the issue of digital authoritarianism in Indonesia. Both Kokok Dirgantoro, East Java DPR Legislative Candidate V from the Indonesian Solidarity Party (Partai Solidaritas Indonesia, PSI), and Ilhamsyah, DPR Jakarta III legislative candidate from the Labour Party, express their aversion to UU ITE.

“I can’t stand UU ITE where people can report you for your online posts,” says Kokok. “As its namesake, the law should be used to protect citizens from electronic transactions, not to imprison or intimidate them.”

Ilhamsyah goes a step further and calls for its revocation “because the law is the foundation of criminalizing [activists].” He adds, “The state should guarantee and protect its citizens’s right to freedom of expression, foster debates in the face of differences, and respect minority rights and equality of opportunities.”

An Outlook of Digital Authoritarianism in Indonesia

Ilhamsyah adds that the issue of digital rights should include fair and safe access, including equitable development of infrastructure, respect for privacy and security, and encouraging civic participation in public-facing digital transformation initiatives.

This vision is aligned with Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report, which measures a country’s score based on Obstacles to Access, Limits on Content, and Violations of User Rights. On those measures, Indonesia scores 14/25, 17/35, and 16/40 respectively, adding to a total of 47/100 and a categorisation of “Partly Free”. Freedom House’s report for Indonesia can be found on this page.

How does Indonesia fare compared to other countries in the region? Below is a table we have compiled on the eight Southeast Asian countries out of the 70 worldwide that Freedom House measured.

CountryTotal ScoreStatusScore Details
Obstacles of AccessLimits on ContentViolations on User Rights
Cambodia44/100Partly free13/2517/3514/40
Indonesia47/100Partly free14/2517/3516/40
Malaysia61/100Partly free19/2522/3520/40
Myanmar10/100Not free2/255/353/40
Philippines61/100Partly free16/2523/3522/40
Singapore54/100Partly free19/2517/3518/40
Thailand39/100Partly free16/2514/359/40
Vietnam22/100Not free12/256/354/40

This data tells us that no country in Southeast Asia has internet freedom, with the worst offender being Myanmar and the second worst being Vietnam. At 47/100 Indonesia sits in the middle, below Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines, but above Thailand and Cambodia. Thai citizens have better access but more limits on content and face far more violations on user rights (the worst outside of Myanmar and Vietnam), while Cambodia scores only marginally lower than Indonesia.

For Indonesia, Freedom House has recapped key developments from June 2022 to May 2023 with the following. Note that to avoid confusion we have removed the reference codes to the full report in this quote, which can be found on the report page linked here and above.

  • Internet disruptions continued to occur in the Papua region, often in the context of activity by the security forces and other sensitive events.
  • In the summer of 2022, the government briefly blocked several international websites—including those of Yahoo, the gaming service Steam, and the payment processor PayPal—after they failed to meet new registration deadlines under MR 5/2020, a sweeping content-moderation law that forces platforms to take down a wide range of content and provide the government with access to user data, among other provisions.
  • In December 2022, the parliament passed a new criminal code that stipulates harsh penalties for speech-related offences including the dissemination of false information, insults, and the promotion of abortion.
  • There were fewer confirmed reports of state-sponsored content manipulation, which is usually spread by online commentators known as “buzzers,” than in past coverage periods.
  • Journalists and activists were violently attacked for their online activities; in one case, a bomb exploded in the vicinity of a journalist’s home.

To this day, the Indonesian government continues to actively engage in internet disruptions, the blocking of websites and social media accounts, pro-government online brigading (despite reported decrease), and criminalising online voices, contributing to their relatively low score.

Government Efforts to Protect Digital Rights: Genuine or Propaganda?

Internet disruptions, blockades, brigading, and criminalisation are far from being the only threats to digital rights and freedom of expression. Fake news, misinformation, and disinformation campaigns can be just as detrimental in their oppression of certain voices and positions, not to mention ruining democracies in the long run by swaying elections in favour of a ruling autocrat.

While fact-checking may be a way to counter that, several problems remain. First, as in this report published in The Conversation Indonesia, fact-checking is far from being a habit for Indonesian internet users. Below is an infographic from the report:

Second, there is an issue of transparency of data sources. Government-led fact-checking initiatives can easily be propaganda campaigns masked as anti-disinformation activism. After all, without transparent sources, or with sources that all lead back to government-produced data, how can we tell the difference? For example, the government, through the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, once propagated misinformation regarding Papuan issues on their “fact verification” page.

It wouldn’t take much stretch of the imagination to see, for example, how critical narratives surrounding the events of 1965-1966 and 1998 in Indonesia have been labelled as fake news or foreign threats of disinformation. It took years for Fatia Maulidiyanti and Haris Azhar to finally be acquitted of charges over a video they featured in which they talked about the involvement of Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment in Papua. Based on their history, we expect the Prabowo-Gibran regime to continue avoiding discussing issues of human rights abuses in Indonesia’s dark past.

Third, there is the issue of AI. Singapore’s SEA-LION Large Language Model initiative, for example, promises to produce generative linguistic AI for Southeast Asia by training them on local Southeast Asian languages, including Bahasa Indonesia. This can be seen as advancing the region on technological fronts, with experts claiming it will decrease bias inherent in modelling Southeast Asia via English-only coverage. Others, however, are more skeptical, claiming it will only increase bias by being limited only to government-sanctioned data. This kind of data, they claim, will provide a new way of censorship and historical revisionism.

Contradictions of Digital Authoritarianism in Indonesia

Despite all of these threats, one may ask: so what? Activists could wax poetic about the importance of freedom of expression, historical transparency, and maintaining democracy in the face of digital threats, but when it comes down to it, would the people choose to live in a free country but remain poor, or live in a police state with little to no poverty and guaranteed welfare?

Our own Citizen’s Agenda survey, after all, always ranks economic issues such as poverty, welfare, job security, wages, and living costs above digital rights and freedom of expression in every country without exception. Does that mean we must be ready to sacrifice our freedom if it means making the country more economically prosperous?

The first thing to note here is that this is a false dichotomy. Having to choose between the two is a line of argument that autocrats like to use, with many citing Lee Kuan Yew’s famous line:

“What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools. No, no, no, there’s no question about it.”

— Lee Kuan Yew, cited in Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas (Kwang, Fernandez, & Tan 1998)

While this is not to deny Singapore’s economic achievements despite its rising living cost problems, (and the fact that Singapore still has a higher score of Freedom on the Net compared to Indonesia, as cited above), one thing that must be acknowledged is how Singapore has occupied a privileged geographical position and a headstart in economic development.

Digital authoritarianism, however benign, would be hard-pressed to work in any country today, and it would fail especially spectacularly in Indonesia.

Katherine Mansted (2020) has outlined eight vulnerabilities of digital authoritarianism:

  • brittle legitimacy, particularly during political or economic crises;
  • constant contest for control, i.e. the state being in a perpetual state of information warfare;
  • a constant cycle of overreach and backlash;
  • impaired feedback mechanisms causing delayed reaction to crises;
  • overreliance on technological systems which fail hard and produce cascading effects;
  • unintended consequences from high-tech modernism, such as distortions of commercial decisions and public expectations;
  • challenges to social cohesion which in turn impact economic progress; and
  • dysfunctional innovation ecosystems by disincentivising research that is critical of the status quo.

These vulnerabilities will become apparent with these three primary contradictions in the system, especially in the context of Indonesia’s stated political and economic goals.

Contradiction #1: Toxic Dependency on a Global Market

As we have previously explored, Indonesia’s economic growth—especially if we are to implement Prabowo-Gibran’s downstreaming strategy—relies heavily on scaling up its access to a global market, both labour-wise and in terms of goods and services.

On the other hand, practices such as internet disruptions and the blocking of websites and social media accounts run counter to these goals. For the country to be internationally relevant and competitive, its citizens need free and equitable access to the Internet, including better development of infrastructure in more remote areas.

Free and equitable internet access risks opening up the floodgates to information potentially disruptive to the status quo, including transnational conversations on historical transparency, ongoing human rights abuses, and criminalisation of activists. These will invite backlash, questions of legitimacy, and challenges to social cohesion that will in turn impact the economy in multiple ways.

This is the first contradiction. Autocrats may promise economic growth and better welfare, but for these things to happen, Indonesia needs more internet freedom, which will pose a risk to digital authoritarianism.

Contradiction #2: Fostering Dysfunction via Brain Drain

Economic growth relies on a critical and educated workforce. This has never been more true in the age of AI, where critical thinking is more and more required to handle new technological challenges. The restriction of digital rights and freedom of expression, while acceptable to some, will be off-putting to many of the more critical populations of Indonesia.

Already, we are seeing the normalisation of people in the productive age working abroad. Not only do they provide better pay, but also great internet freedom and a more reliable information ecosystem. This trend is only going to go up as digital rights and freedom of expression in Indonesia become more restricted. Eventually, there will be little to no critically-minded educated workforce left in the country.

This is not only a question of workforce and economic returns. With no opposing voices left, it’s very easy for a country to have a delayed reaction to crises, warped public expectations, a dysfunctional innovation ecosystem, and make misled commercial decisions in the long run. Eventually, this democratic backsliding will be followed by economic backsliding.

This is the second contradiction. Autocrats are averse to critical thinkers and will take digital authoritarian measures to keep them in check. At the same time, a healthy nation-state ecosystem depends on feedback from critical thinkers.

Contradiction #3: Eroding Legitimacy in an Upcoming Crisis

With climate change in place, like the rest of the world, Indonesia is bound to head for another economic crisis. As sea levels rise and extreme weather conditions impact supply chains, the cost of living will only increase. It is one thing to trust certain figures during times of peace—a presidential campaign branding the candidate as a cute and cuddly grandpa, for example, would work—but it’s entirely another question whether such figures can maintain trust and legitimacy during times of crisis.

Digital authoritarianism relies on restricting opposing voices and limiting freedom of expression. However, the seeds of brittle legitimacy are there. Already, we find it difficult to believe fact-checking organisations, and even legislative candidates are wary of pseudolaw such as UU ITE. Soon, generative AI will be commonplace, which in the current political climate may erode narratives surrounding the government’s legitimacy even further.

Today, the overreach and backlash cycle of digital authoritarian rules are mostly felt by democracy activists and human rights defenders such as Fatia Maulidiyanti, Haris Azhar, and those who stand by them. In a crisis, things can very easily spill over and snowball into much larger chaos. Add this to the poor ecosystem we will have built in place as explored in Contradiction #2, and we have a recipe for disaster.

This is the final contradiction. Autocrats rely on control of information and criminalisation of opposing voices, but these practices will in turn come back to bite them once an inevitable crisis hits.

Conclusion

In day-to-day armchair discussions, there is a tendency to view digital rights and freedom of expression as a middle-class problem, only for those privileged enough to not think about what they would eat the next day or how they would pay rent this month. As if one could only care about one’s freedom if one’s stomach is full, so to speak.

This, of course, is highly misleading, especially when we start to think about those still living under military occupation or those subjected to modern-day slavery in Southeast Asia. But it’s also misleading on a much larger scale. Unless you were blessed with very specific geopolitical circumstances at a precise point in history, digital authoritarianism is a terrible idea. Even in a purely pragmatic, utilitarian, capitalist sense, digital authoritarian tendencies lead to economic volatility and brittleness in the long run.

In the previous explainer, we have outlined four actions to advocate for the alleviation of poverty and precarity in Indonesia. They are to monitor the government’s prejudices, to demand transparency and accountability, to sway public confidence and sentiment, and to enhance the strength of civil society. These four steps would be impossible without a solid guarantee of our digital rights and freedom of expression.

Hence, to conclude, we as members of civil society must do all we can to keep pushing to fight against digital authoritarianism in Indonesia. We must keep calling for the revocation of UU ITE and other pseudolegal practices in Indonesia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Our lives, both literally and figuratively, depend on it.

References

Outside of the numerous online sources linked in the text, below are three key documents and studies that were referenced in this Explainer:

  1. Kwang, Han Fook, Warren Fernandez, & Sumiko Tan. 1998. Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish. Available online.
  2. Mansted, Katherine. 2020. Strong Yet Brittle: The Risks of Digital Authoritarianism. Washington, DC: The Alliance for Securing Democracy. Available online.
  3. Naím, Moisés. 2022. The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century. New York: St. Martins’ Publishing Group. Available online.
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