Thu, 10 Jul 2003


Authorities jeopardize freedom of expression: Watchdog

The Jakarta Post Jakarta

Hope for freedom of expression for Indonesians after the fall of former dictator Soeharto has been jeopardized by authorities who continue sending their critics to jail, a human rights group says.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch, which dedicates itself to protecting the rights of people around the world, also said in its report on Wednesday that Indonesia's courts had failed to protect the basic rights of its citizens and were not immune to political interference.

Examining various cases that took place following the downfall of Soeharto's regime in 1998, the Human Rights Watch called for the release of people detained for expressing their non-violent political views at peaceful protests.

Some students in Solo, East Java, had been jailed for trampling on President Megawati Soekarnoputri's pictures during antigovernment protests; while in Jakarta, several student activists are being tried for holding peaceful antigovernment protests without informing police authorities as required by law.

The organization urged the government and lawmakers to repeal Articles 134, 136 and 137 of the country's Criminal Code that criminalize insulting the president or vice president and "anyone who disseminates, demonstrates openly or puts up a writing or portrait containing an insult against the president or vice president".

It also called on the government to repeal Articles 154, 155 and 157 of the Criminal Code, which criminalize "public expression of feelings of hostility, hatred, or contempt toward the government", and prohibiting the expression of such feelings or views through the public media.

"The articles also violate the spirit of Indonesia's Constitution, which grants the freedom of expression," the organization said, referring to Article 28 of the 1945 Constitution.

In its 23-page report, the Human Rights Watch highlighted several cases implicating students, common people and news seekers who opposed the government's decisions which, in their opinion, were unpopular.

The rights watchdog conducted research from July 2002 through February 2003 when numerous arrests of political activists took place in Jakarta, including the case of Nanang, a 20-year-old street vendor, and Muzakkir, a 21-year-old street musician, who appear to have been the first to be convicted for insulting President Megawati.

It further said that restriction of freedom of expression in Indonesia was also faced by the press. Last February, two editors of the Rakyat Merdeka daily were summoned by police over a story which allegedly insulted the president.

The systematic arrests of demonstrators appear to have been prompted by a statement President Megawati made on July 8, 2002, when she publicly condemned those who voiced opposition to the government.

Megawati was reported as saying that symbols of the country had to be respected and that if she met demonstrators who did not respect those symbols, she would ask them to chose another nationality.

"After these statements were made, arrests of demonstrators insulting President Megawati increased significantly," the report said.