Here’s the thing: Jerinx has been a problematic figure in Indonesia for months, as he touted one conspiracy theory after another on social media amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But criminalizing his mindless rhetoric using the Information and Electronic Transactions Act (UU ITE) is a reckless move that further undermines freedom of expression in Indonesia.
I Gede Ari Astina, who is more popularly known as Jerinx or JRX, has been spouting dangerous ideas on social media for months, compelling his loyal fans and audience to a slew of irresponsible conspiracy theories, but which are easier to believe when your country is being run by incompetent leaders gambling away public health in the name of the economy.
When it seems like no one is paying attention to rakyat kecil (the common people), figures like JRX occupy the public sphere in a savior-like manner. In difficult times, the ideas he shared appear like a fitting alternative; a probable reasoning for all the shit that is going down around us, upending all of our lives. Not to mention that he’s been known to side with the people, given his activism track record in rejecting the controversial Benoa Bay reclamation in Bali. For many, he retains the image of someone who fearlessly opposes the official narrative and authorities, someone who doesn’t mind being controversial as long as he stands up for what’s right. In other words, this bli (bro) has your back.
As I’ve briefly mentioned, the COVID-19 pandemic evidently provided fertile ground for people like JRX to flourish, especially in Indonesia where “awful” doesn’t even begin to describe the government’s handling of this public health crisis. Policies are directly and swiftly impacting citizens, but they came with a severe lack of science-based leadership and educational effort on matters related to the coronavirus. Too many Indonesian officials, many of whom seated at the top posts of this current administration, failed to duly inform and educate across all levels of society, leaving considerable gaps that can easily be filled with people with skewed understanding of this whole situation.
That’s where JRX, and the likes of him, comes in. For months, he’s challenged healthcare workers and hospitals, denied the risks and seriousness of this novel disease, spewed various conspiracy theories related to the origins of COVID-19, and more recently, urged people to drop masks to challenge “tyranny” against freedom of choice. For roughly the same length of time, he’s facilitated a public kitchen in Kuta, a nice gesture positively impacting the people that agonizingly sustains his image as a man of the people.
There’s a lot to unpack from his narrative, which has considerably built up to a point where he now boasts more than 1 million followers on Instagram. A quick look at his posts on the platform and you’d get to see the level of support he gets from his followers — many of whom are Balinese — and how they side with his questionable theories and tireless tirade, thus further illustrating the extent of his influence.
JRX has yet to be convicted for alleged defamation against the Balinese chapter of the Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI), but he has now been detained by the Bali Police. Instead of challenging the man’s precarious narrative, Indonesian authorities swooped in and exerted foolish dominion over the matter on the basis of defamation, arguably emboldening his dubious claims that needed to be straightened out, but should not be crushed.
The situation has quickly derailed from an issue of misinformation to a serious threat to our collective freedom of expression in this country. Fellow Indonesians who have long understood the problems posed by UU ITE are now faced with a tricky challenge of balancing the fact that the law sucks ass and that JRX did irresponsibly use his platform to promote conspiracy theories. But the latter ought to be disputed on a level playing field: with facts, not criminal charges.
That is no easy feat to accomplish. Not when most of our interactions are limited to social media, not when elaborate and meaningful discussions are difficult to accomplish due to the conventions of these platforms, and not when cognitive dissonance plays a huge role amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In criminalizing his criticisms against IDI, authorities are equipping his “followers” with more ammunition to say: “Bli Jerinx has been right all along.” He hasn’t, but it’s going to be a lot harder to convince his supporters now. Have you seen #BebaskanJRXSID (Free Jerinx) and #SayaBersamaJRX (I’m with Jerinx) floating around already?
This is yet another complex issue that requires more than just a quick read on Instagram or Twitter. The fact that this is the kind of challenge we need to overcome only exemplifies why freedom of expression continues to be under threat here in Indonesia.