Bonnibel Rambatan talks to Ika Ningtyas, Secretary General of Aliansi Jurnalis Independen Indonesia, about digital authoritarianism, how it limits ideas and suppresses the rights of individuals who try to speak openly, why it is important for any coalition of democratic allies to play both defensive and offensive roles and promoting resilience to authoritarian digital threats.
Welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that.
If I asked you what the opposite of democracy is, what comes to mind? Whatever your answers may be, I’d guess that “totalitarianism” or “authoritarianism” would be up there on the list. But how do we understand those terms? These days, we can’t just think of them as purely militaristic or police-state practices. A lot of our shift into increasing authoritarianism happens digitally.
Digital Authoritarianism, according to Yayboke and Brannen in a paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies published on October 2020, is, quote, the use of the Internet and related digital technologies by leaders with authoritarian tendencies to decrease trust in public institutions, increase social and political control, and/or undermine civil liberties, end quote.
When information flows are increasingly determined by the government, it limits what ideas are possible and suppresses the rights of individuals who try to speak openly. Human rights and civil liberties are at stake. With new digital authoritarian laws, governments can severely undermine the foundational principles of democratic and open societies.
It is important for any coalition of democratic allies to play both defensive and offensive roles, promoting resilience to authoritarian digital threats while building an affirmative alternative that diminishes the influence of authoritarian actors over time.
In New Naratif, as part of the Media Freedom in Southeast Asia Project, the Media Freedom Network (MFN) is our response to these challenges as we aim to build a sustainable network of media workers, organisations, and activists to provide support, solidarity, and resources to media practitioners in our region. Our network activities include digital security trainings, legal briefings, and workshops, which you can find out more about at newnaratif.com/mediafreedom.
There are, fortunately, quite a few initiatives with a similar mission across Southeast Asia. One of the oldest ones is the Alliance for Independent Journalists in Indonesia, perhaps more known by their Bahasa Indonesia name of Aliansi Jurnalis Independen or AJI. AJI was founded in 1994 by Satrio Arismunandar, Ahmad Taufik, Goenawan Mohamad, and Ging Ginanjar in response to the banning of major news outlets by the Suharto regime.
I’m Ika Ningtyas, the Secretary General of the Alliance for Independent Journalist or AJI Indonesia. AJI Indonesia is one of the journalist association based in Jakarta and we have more than 1,800 members in 40 cities overall in Indonesia.
That’s Ika Ningtyas, the current Secretary General of AJI. Having been an independent journalist for a number of years herself, she now fights for media freedom as well as the safety and welfare of journalists and human rights defenders alike.
The Laws of Digital Authoritarian
Let’s start by defining that, how would you define the encroaching authoritarianism of the government in the digital sphere. What are the laws that reflect this, what are the things that we must be wary of, how can we call it digital authoritarianism?
Yeah, we noted that how the authorities basically Indonesian government escalates used technology to silence of critical group. And we also noted that Indonesia have several Laws, it’s like implementing electronic information transaction, EIT Law, since 2008 and it’s revision in 2016. But AJI recorded that the law is used massively since 2019 under second term of President Joko Widodo to silenced the critical group including independent journalists.
EIT Law contains several problematic article such as defamation and hate speech which is misused to criminalise journalists. Since 2019, based on AJI’s data, until last year, there are at least four journalists brought to prison under this law. Human rights defenders also targeted by this law based on newly SAFENet data showed the number of criminalisation increasing significantly since 2019. Not only EIT Law.
Secondly, Indonesia have Internet shut down policy during the antiracism movement in West Papua in 2019 by justifying the tackling of misinformation. But contrary to government reason, in fact so many journalists in the field was difficult verifying the information and publishing reliable news to the public. Also, it made all Papua, especially in 10 region in West Papua unable to access the public surfaces like health or business services.
Thirdly, the new regulation is Ministry of Communication and Informatic Regulation or MR5. The regulation is about all the private digital platform who have mandatory to register and how the content takedown obligation under strict time between 4 until 24 hours without independent and clear mechanism. Also, there is no clear criteria about forbidden content that must be taken down under this regulation. So if ministry or police institution ask the platform to take down they must do that or there will be penalties with expensive penalties.
So the situation is getting worse and we also recall how the digital attack not only targeting journalists or independent media, also targeting human rights defenders.
Advocacy Against Digital Authoritarian Laws
Yeah, well, in that based on these three laws, the situation is kind of dire and it’s really affecting media freedom and not only media freedom itself, but really the safety of media workers and human rights defenders and all of these things, right.
We understand that you’ve been pushing for judicial reviews about the Internet blocking, about the lots of people have been pushing for the EIT laws or the judicial reviews, but it’s been rejected, right? It’s largely been rejected or withdrawn by the Constitutional Court and stuff like that.
So how would you explain this situation? I mean, if we push for judicial reviews and then we keep getting rejected, then how do you see this? How do you see the situation?
The one action is how AJI and national coalition to challenge of the digital authoritarianism under the court system in Indonesia. To make it clear that AJI filed lawsuit internet shutdown policy to Administrative Court first in 2020 and continued with judicial review of EIT Law to Constitutional Court in 2021.
In the first step we won the lawsuit in administrative court and the judges said that the Internet shutdown policy under Ministry of Communication Informatics was unlawful because the policy is not regulated under specific law as national umbrella Law.
You know that in several international standard mandatory all the human rights limitation policy must regulated by law as umbrella not enough only with ministry decision, because the law needs the public participation not only under government law or ministry law. So the decision, of course, made the press freedom in Papua was getting worse. You know that West Papua is most dangerous region in Indonesia for journalists relating the security issues and human rights violation.
So after we won the lawsuit in administrative courts, AJI continued to judicial review in constitutional courts. AJI and national coalition challenged only Article 42 that regulating about blocking access. We found that the article has not contained an independent process or involving independent body to regulate blocking access mechanism. In relation to how the internet shutdown did 2019 there is no independent mechanism about why the government and how the government decided that the situation must taken action by internet shutdown. This article give the government considerable authority to determine which content violation or not.
The powerful of its authority is dangerous because the government can misuse it to political purpose. The government is not independent body, so we want that the judges can include independent mechanism or independent process mandatory into the article. But unfortunately, you know that the judges decided the ruling article is constitutional. So we have analysis about that the judges that didn’t have a good perspective about digital right? So the situation probably the Internet shutdown or blocking access can continue in the future.
We have a similar situation in Last of July in 2022. The Ministry (Ministry of Communication and Informatics) took action to block access of 8 platforms under the MR5 2022.
On Going Advocacy
How do we go from here? Does AJI have any more plans to keep pushing for reviews or maybe and also, like, if you do, what would be different?
Can you maybe tell us more also about the ideal situation? Not ideal situation, but if this law were to be implemented, you were talking about the independent body and stuff like that, so can you maybe tell us more about that?
Currently, AJI and National Coalition is filling lawsuit through administrative court to challenge the Minister Regulation 5 (MR5) after the Ministry was blocking 8 platforms in 2022. We are still waiting the judges and we hope that the judges have a good perspective on a digital right for public. I hope we can continue the legacy of our experience that won during the Internet shutdown in 2019
Also, recently Indonesian government and legislative body is processing to revise the EIT Law. AJI and National Coalition is preparing numbers of advocacy efforts to push the legislative member can take down several problematic articles under EIT Law.
Of course, we cannot work alone without the public support from all of you, including all the independent media, because it’s really about human rights. We all have been shown on how the EIT Law can be targeting me, you and all Indonesian people. Please take action and we can work together and also you can speak up to support us with your account on social media or you can help us to send like a letter to president or the legislative member and it needs the public participation for meaningful process. So we hope that all the effort that we are doing now and we can have a better situation in future.
So you think that it’s the pressure from the public if we support this thing and we just raise awareness and we begin to send letters or just even make noises and make waves in social media, this would definitely help the reform?
Yes, of course the public support is really important to gather so many support from citizens by social media or with offline action because you know that the EIT Law is really dangerous and it makes us under the criminalisation threat. So it’s not only about the journalist rights or human rights defender, but it’s about human rights.
So yeah, public must take action now.
Now let me go back a little bit to the things that you mentioned about Papua because definitely all of these press freedom, media freedom, we do have threats and we have quite bad here in Jakarta and in Java and the rest of Indonesia and Papua has like a whole lot worse, it’s a lot more dangerous there and we have much less media freedom.
Can you tell us a bit about that and maybe how these digital authoritarian laws are actually like a lot more dangerous to people in Papua and maybe other parts of Indonesia? They’re a lot more oppressed.
Yeah, before digital alternation is rising, Papua becomes most dangerous region in Indonesia not only for Indonesian journalists, also for foreign journalists because they are still forbidden to access Papua directly.
So the issue is about security, we know that how the military force dominantly known and it made how the human rights violations happen it’s not only to human right defender but it’s also targeting the critical groups who have freedom of expression or how they can they have idea or inspiration or anything expression about the Papua.
Yeah, so we also have issues about geographical issue because it’s really difficult to access some region in Papua and it’s not easy for journalists can access Papua directly, it’s really costly and sometimes journalists doesn’t get support from the media company.
So we look how the several media only used dominant resource person from the state or from the military officers or from the police institution. So it is how the public information is really challenging about the Papua.
Holistic Safety Training
Yeah, and I think Papua really is a very good example of how digital authoritarianism and militaristic authoritarianism just come together and if people I mean I’m sure the listeners here already realise the dangers of digital authoritarianism but I think it’s just the worst part of it.
You can just take a look at what’s happening there if anyone is not yet convinced, right? So there’s this whole danger of not only everything like as you mentioned, it’s a whole human rights issue and it’s like really connected with this whole freedom of expression, freedom of the press and stuff like that.
And I wanted to take this to the fact that we have an increasing danger in Papua and elsewhere in Indonesia too, although to different degrees. And at the same time we are pushing for reforms and abolition of these laws. But those take time, right?
So I wanted to get to hear from you, what do you think we can do in the meantime to ensure the safety of the journalists, of the human rights defenders while we are also pushing for the reforms of these laws?
Yeah, journalists are vulnerable group under all various type of threat, especially in Papua. So the threat is not only the legal threats under EIT law, under the MR5 or internet shutdown policy, but we also have physical and verbal violence, sexual harassment and digital attacks.
Based on AJI’s data in 2022, showed that how the violence is increasing. We record at least 97 journalists become a victim in last year. Yeah, the trend is still the first about physical violence and the secondly, the trend is about how digital attacks becomes new trends and it indicates how journalists has a complex situation in digital era.
So since 2020 AJI has been trained the journalists by holistic safety training to respond the hard situation. The curriculum contained on how journalists can mitigate risks in conflict and disaster zone, how to mitigate legal trap to face EIT law, how the journalists can respond if they got digital attacks and handling psychosocial threats.
Lately we are strengthening our capacity to handle our digital attack. AJI is already part of national coalition to give emergency response of digital attack not limited for journalists but also all human rights defenders.
As the same strategy, we are preparing 40 digital safety experts to handle digital attack for local journalists because you know that Indonesia is really a huge country and sometimes we have a gap of capacity of a journalist in Jakarta between journalists in region, especially outside of Java. So we need to train and prepare 40 digital safety experts so they can help the local journalists, train the local journalists and give the fast response if any digital attacks happen in a local journalist.
So it’s like strategic planning how we can to prepare all the strategy or effort because we will face the 2024 election and sometimes we record that political years relate how the number of violence will be increased.
How’s it going so far with with all the with all the trainings and stuff and have you faced any challenges or have you made anyone angry that you’re doing all of these trainings and stuff?
Can you tell us more about how it’s going?
Yeah, why AJI have responsibility about the strategy or effort because you know that media company is the first party who has obligation to train their journalists including providing safety equipment, social insurance and safety fund for emergency situation. But unfortunately, based on AJI survey last year a lot of journalists said that mostly media companies doesn’t implement or don’t have a responsibility to run this obligation.
So basically most of Indonesian journalists have minimum protection. That’s why AJI or other organisation are working or have a collaboration to provide the safety training, especially for local journalists. We provide curriculum as the first step to make how the journalists needs about the material, how they can know about basic knowledge about digital security aspect. Yeah, so after that we train some participants as trainers and after that they can train another local journalist in each region.
So that’s how we reach out more and more the journalists can have good skill and knowledge about digital security.
Has there been any challenges that you faced throughout all of these trainings?
Yes, sometimes. Because you know that digital security is really new thing, new thing for journalists. And we also have a gap knowledge and skill about how to respond the digital aspect and how we can adopt and know about and use the new tool, how can they help to increase their device. It’s like a headphone or the laptop.
There are so many things we need to raise awareness. But you know, based on AJI’s survey, that the journalists sometimes they difficult to implement about the digital security aspect because sometimes their laptop is not compatible with the tools and they don’t have credit card to buy the premium tools.
It’s really challenging, but we need to support them. It’s like giving fund or giving the tools that AJI can offer some tools for participants.
Training Requirements and Limitations
I see. And what about challenges of scalability? Because I see that a lot of people, a lot of people need these kinds of trainings. But also on the other hand, we do realise that your holistic safety training has this requirement of like the minimum two years thing.
Is that too so that we don’t go overboard and just try to train everybody or what is this about?
Yeah, I realized that AJI has limited budget to provide the training for all local journalists because I mentioned before that AJI has almost 2000 members of role in region in Indonesia. So huge number. So AJI’s training was designed on how the participant could share their knowledge and new skill to other journalists in his region. It’s why we require two years as minimum experience as journalists.
So we hope that they have basic capacity to teach others to have basic experience as journalists. How they have a basic capacity as mentor, as a trainer. It’s only a strategy. So after the training we have a lot of trainers who can develop the training in a region to reach out more local journalists.
I see. And then the reaching of those local journalists they get integrated into AJI’s network and then in a couple of years they’ll be able to train more journalists. Is that the idea?
Yes, of course. So in the national we have a big coalition not only AJI but including digital expert organization join in this coalition. After that we train the local expert. So if any case happened in a region or in a local area the local trainer or local mentor can give like the first response or the first aid for the journalist but if they difficult to do that they can report to national coalition.
The national coalition will help the difficult case and we communicate with the platform. It’s like Meta or Google. What is it? Twitter. On all the platform we have good communication about that. The response is really running good and we will prepare so many things and so many local experts to face if the number of cases will increase in 2024 because it’s impossible for national coalition to handle all the cases because we not only cover the journalists but also all the human rights defender.
So the networking must be wider and national scale also can coverage all the provinces in Indonesia.
Yeah, I realise it’s a pretty major thing. It’s a huge network that covers like thousands of people and potentially it’s going to grow to thousands more.
How do you maintain communication and how does not really not really the National Coalition and the local ones but I’m more wondering how you see these local journalists building their own grassroots network and how they talk to each other even without having to go national.
For example, like journalists in certain areas, talk to journalists in other areas and stuff like that. How does how did these communication happen and how did these communication get fostered in?
Okay, basically AJI has 40 branches in 40 cities in Indonesia. So each branches or chapters we have a local office and each chapter also organised several local journalists. So from the local community they can communicate directly with their experts and also they can do discussion or local training. The communication basically using the signal group and also they can meet in person directly every day.
It’s really easy to organise the community because the local networking of AJI is huge and after that as a national level also open it’s like report mechanism, so if any journalists who are difficult to reach out the local expert they can also report with our platform.
So all the report and case also monitor under advocacy division and internet division so we know about any cases faster and we can to have a good mechanism to handle all the case in Indonesia.
Do you have any aspirations for a more regional collaboration? Because obviously this isn’t the first time that AJI and New Naratif are speaking, right? Because we’ve been talking about grassroots movements and local journalists. But in New Naratif we also feel that establishing a more regional sense of solidarity is important.
Can you maybe talk more about AJI’s aspirations on that issue?
Yeah, it’s one of the AJI strategy also to brought the cooperation is not only in a national and local journalist but also we need to cooperate with the journalists association in a Southeast Asia. We had experience about that established the Southeast Asia journalist organisation years ago but unfortunately that collaboration is no longer there anymore.
We need to move and try the new strategy how we can to collaborate again with the journalist organisation in Southeast Asia. So from the collaboration is it really happy, because any six journalists organisation in Southeast Asia have same commitment, same mission to bring this collaboration wider than before. And we also have new strategy and new approach to bring this collaboration more flexible than before. We are really lucky because we have a good digital technology now that makes the communication can happen with effective way to answer the challenge in each country?
So from this collaboration we can share best practice experience about how to handle the legal threat, how they can respond the digital attacks and how we can face the digital authoritarianism as well as establish monitoring platform, joint training and also joint campaign to respond if any prominent case from each country.
So it’s really baby step for this year, but yeah, it’s going well.
The Importance of Learning Across the Region
Yeah, especially I think it’s getting more and more crucial especially these years, right? I mean we just had the Malaysian general election this year. We’re going to have the Thai election and then several other countries if I’m not mistaken. And also Indonesia is being the chairman of ASEAN and the next year we have the Indonesian elections.
All of these things are like we are in the cusp of a politically heated situation in Southeast Asia and obviously the media freedom and then safety of journalists, safety of human rights defenders, that’s an increasingly crucial thing to pay attention to.
I wonder if you have any specific aspirations. I mean we did talk about baby steps and stuff like that, but how do you see this thing play out with all of these heated political situations and increasing threats against media freedom, against journalists, against human rights defenders?
But with your efforts and with the efforts from the grassroots movements and the support from the public, how do you see this play out in the next couple of years? Are you optimistic? Are you more like cautious? What’s your opinion on that?
Yeah, we see that. We have same problem in each country. Especially Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippine, Cambodia and Thailand. And we also know how the same trap also happened in these six countries. And yeah, unteresting that we know that it’s like regulation and law is like a copy, copying by each government. It’s like the disinformation or fake news law. It’s come from the Singapore and also copy to Malaysia and Cambodia Philippine as well, and Indonesia happened under it EIT and newly criminal codes. The government in Southeast Asia copied their policy to control of the information in that digital era.
So from this trend I think this is important how the journalist organisation can learn and share their experience together. So we know how to tackle this situation and what change that we can advocates together under all the challenges in this regional country.
From this collaboration we also know how about it’s like a Philippine case under the 2022 election. We note that new trend or the TikTok as the important platformm used by the candidate to gain the electoral voices and also from that we know how the civil society in Philippine handle the disinformation and misinformation during the election.
So the best experience can adopted in Indonesia, we copy the best experience from the Philippines to tackle, misinformation and disinformation with national collaboration not only between media and journalists, also including the other civil society, academics and also religious group and pro-bono lawyers. So that it’s important that we can share. Collaboration can give benefit for not only Indonesia or AJI but also for another members.
Yeah, I agree. If the governments are copying one another in terms of authoritarian practices, then obviously it’s very crucial for the activists and human rights defenders and journalists across Southeast Asia to just learn from one another regarding the best practices and build this kind of solidarity and just keep pushing back for reforms, for all of these judicial reforms.
But also build safety trainings and the things that you are doing. I think AJI is doing amazing work there and I think that’s a great note to end on. Thank you very much Mbak Ika for speaking with us. We’re looking forward to further collaborations with AJI.
Thank you Bonni and New Naratif Team.
And that wraps up our conversation with Ika Ningtyas. For this issue, there’s really no further calls to action except the one thing that we’ve discussed: Make waves. I need you all to make waves. To keep protesting against digital authoritarian laws–whether that’s EIT Law and MR5 in Indonesia, FICA in Singapore, AFNA in Malaysia, or other laws wherever you reside.
Make noise on social media. Write to your representatives and governments. Take to the streets when it’s safe to do so in your area. Whatever you do, do not stay silent. Your voice matters. It always matters in fighting against authoritarianism, digital or otherwise.
And if you’re interested to take part in this issue further, participate in legal briefings and other training activities, tell your stories, or simply get connected, check out our Media Freedom Project, which you can find at newnaratif.com/mediafreedom, all one word.
My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches. Brought to you by New Naratif, and produced by Dania Joedo. I’ll see you around.