Tue, 09 May 2000

Freedom of expression can hurt

By Ridarson Galingging

JAKARTA (JP): A genuine sense of excitement has swept across Indonesia since the limitations on freedom of expression were lifted.

People feel released after decades of silence and fear. Now the headlines blare their biting criticisms and average citizens speak out instead of whispering. No one is spared -- not even the President and Vice President.

If Indonesian democracy is a sick patient, then these new freedoms are surely the right medicine.

But there can be too much of a good thing. The right dose of medicine given in the right form can help the patient recover. But too much in the wrong form can hurt the patient.

Even in the strongest democracies around the world, the right to freedom of expression never means freedom to say anything you like or express demands using any methods available.

The legal system in Indonesia is broken, and thus there are no protections for people against unfair attacks on their reputations.

And because the authority and control of the government is weak -- even though its legitimacy is high -- groups and individuals are expressing their political demands in ways that undermine our basic rights in society, as well as our ability to get along with each other in a civilized manner.

The examples of character assassination in Indonesia have been numerous and spectacular, and the population has recoiled in horror and confusion.

The recent case of Laksamana Sukardi, the former state minister of investment and state enterprises development, was stunning not only because a person of obvious integrity was the target, but because the reports of his involvement in KKN (acronym for corruption, collusion and nepotism) were said to come from the President himself in a closed-door meeting with the legislature.

Freedom of speech should not include the right to publicly accuse people of crimes without providing supporting evidence. Laksamana had a right to due process of the law and the presumption of innocence. He was not charged with any crime, and thus it was improper to fire him on the basis of allegations of KKN.

Sometimes the press can be manipulated effectively to carry out character assassinations against political targets.

A good example is the case last year of American professor Jeffrey Winters, when newspapers and magazines printed allegations of harassment in Yogyakarta. Although police investigations later found that the allegations were groundless and the case was officially closed for lack of credible evidence, there were not enough protections in place in the system to prevent damage to his reputation.

Once the damage is done, it never matters what the truth or outcome is later.

There are numerous other cases of this kind, with the victims often having no chance at all to clear their names.

As for freedom of political expression, this is crucial for a democracy. The right to gather and protest must be upheld if our transition to democracy is to move forward.

Even civil disobedience, which means refusing to obey government orders to stop a protest or retreat from an area that is blocked off, is an important form of expression of dissent.

But when violence is used in political expression, the line is crossed between behavior that upholds democracy and actions that undermine it. Violent expression is a crime and, if our rights are to be upheld, it must be punished.

The problem in Indonesia now is that the government lacks authority, and thus we are witnessing forms of political expression that are not tolerated in any healthy democracy around the world.

Freedom of expression should not mean that people can threaten others physically or destroy property. Nor does it mean that people can be terrorized.

It is the state, with its police force and courts, that must enforce the boundaries of expression according to the law. It is a delicate process, and the irony is that our most important rights in society cannot be protected if the police are too weak or too strong.

Indonesia has not yet found the middle ground for its police and military, and thus we are experiencing a deep crisis of government authority.

One of the most extreme examples of this came last April when 1,000 angry protesters armed with machetes and knives stormed the House of Representatives building. To the horror of everyone there, the protesters pulled out their weapons as they approached the third-floor office of House Speaker Akbar Tanjung.

This was obviously political expression, but it was the sort of political expression all Indonesians should condemn -- not because of the content of the protesters message but because of the method used to express it.

Political expression through violence is antidemocratic and should not be tolerated.

Not only were these armed citizens not prevented from entering the House building, but none were arrested or prosecuted for their intimidating actions.

Because the state did not exercise its proper authority, its authority was drained even further. Can anyone imagine an armed attack like this happening at Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and no action being taken?

It is time for all Indonesians to realize that the best way to uphold and expand legitimate freedom of expression is by condemning those who abuse this cherished right.

This means firmly rejecting the use of free speech to destroy people's reputations, or mixing political expression with violence and threats of destruction.

The writer is a law lecturer at Yarsi University in Jakarta.