IT Ministry and free speech advocates argue against Setya Novanto’s criminalization of memes

House Speaker Setya Novanto being questioned by reporters. Photo: @s.novanto / Instagram
House Speaker Setya Novanto being questioned by reporters. Photo: @s.novanto / Instagram

News that the Jakarta police had arrested a woman on Tuesday for allegedly spreading “defamatory” memes about House Speaker Setya Novanto, who is infamous for dodging corruption charges throughout his career, is being seen not only as an attempt by a powerful politician to silence his critics but also as a chilling attack on the freedom of speech for all Indonesians.

Dyann Kemala Arrizzqi, a 29-year-old woman and member of the Indonesian Solidarity Party, was arrested by the police on Tuesday evening for spreading humorous memes critical of Setya. Although Dyann has since been released from detainment, she could still potentially face up to six years in jail for violating Indonesia’s draconian Law on Information and Electronic Transactions (UU ITE) which criminalizes the creation or dissemination of any information that could be considered defamatory or insulting (to anybody) online.

Although UU ITE has been used frequently in the past by politicians and other elites to attack their critics, Setya’s reporting of Dyann, as well as the owners of 32 other social media accounts that spread memes about him, might represent the most simultaneously frivolous and frightening use of the law yet.

SAFEnet, an NGO that works to protect freedom of speech in Indonesia, issued a press release today demanding that the police immediately stop persecuting the meme-spreaders and for Setya’s lawyers to revoke their report.

While UU ITE is meant to prevent the spread of hate speed and slander, freedom of speech laws in Indonesia should still protect the right of people to make legitimate criticisms and satire. SAFEnet’s coordinator, Damar Juniarto, argued that the memes, in this case, represented legitimate criticism of Setya, as they pertained to his avoidance of questioning by authorities over his role in the massive e-KTP graft scandal and his history of avoiding corruption charges despite overwhelming evidence.

“The distribution (of the memes) can not be separated from the context of the widespread public anger over the legal proceedings in the e-KTP mega corruption case which allegedly involves Setya Novanto. Instead of meeting the call (to be questioned by officials), Setya Novanto suddenly became sick and did not answer their call,” Damar said as quoted by CNN Indonesia.

Erasmus Napitupul, an activist at the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR), also said that the police acting on Setya’s report would frighten the public into not speaking out against politicians.

“It creates a climate of fear and people are afraid to criticize (officials),” Erasmus said as quoted by Kompas.

Even the Communication and Information Technology Ministry (Menkominfo), which is charged with upholding many aspects of UU ITE, disagrees with Setya and the police in terms of whether the memes in question constitute a violation of the law.

Henri Subiakto, who works as an advisor at Menkominfo, said the memes could not be considered a form of defamation but would instead be classified as satire.

“(These memes) are satire and can be considered expressions of opinion. If, for example, they explicitly accused (Setya) of avoiding questioning because he was afraid of getting caught for his crime, that could be considered a (defamatory accusation),” Henri said on Thursday as quoted by Jawa Pos.

“If it’s just for satire, for fun, then that falls under freedom of expression,” he added.

Despite the public outcry against the arrest, members of Setya’s Golkar Party are steadfast in their support for the House Speaker’s war on mean memes.

“If (making memes) becomes the habit of all Indonesians, it means we must live amongst those memes. How are the people supposed to live like that?” asked Golkar Secretary General Idrus Marham yesterday as quoted by Kompas.

We’d ask, how are people supposed to live when they’re so frightened of criticizing political elites that they can’t even hit the share the button on a silly meme?

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