fake news

Indonesia's Answer to Fake News Is a Threat to Free Speech

In the country's revised Criminal Code, anyone can spend up to six years in prison for spreading a hoax.
Illustration by Adam Noor Iman

Indonesia has a fake news problem. Now the House of Representatives have come up with a solution in the revision of the country's outdated Criminal Code. The problem is that the proposed law on fake news is so broad that everyone from hoax syndicates, to journalists, to the average Indonesian who likes to share whatever they read on social media, can spend up to six years in jail for spreading fake news.


In a draft of the Revision of the Criminal Code dated January 10, 2018, the explanation about fake news appears in Article 309:

Any person who broadcasts fake news or hoaxes resulting in a riot or disturbance shall be punished with a maximum imprisonment of six years or a maximum fine of Category III.

Any person who broadcasts or spread news through an information technology means resulting in a riot or disturbance, whereas the news are suspected to be fake or a hoax, shall be punished with a maximum imprisonment of four years or a maximum fine of Category II.

So far, there isn’t a clear explanation what they mean by “disturbance”, what constitutes fake news at all, and who gets to decide what's fake or not.

The revision is an effort to replace the existing Criminal Code, a legacy from the country's colonial past that was last updated in 1959.

The issue of fake news have become a main focus under President Joko Widodo's administration. Jokowi himself is arguably its biggest victim in Indonesia. He's been accused of having close relations with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), being a "slave," to Chinese business interests, and of smuggling Chinese workers to Indonesia. Though a revision in the code is long overdue, some people are thinking, are these changes for the better? Ade Wahyudin, a public defender at LBH Press in Jakarta, is wary of the consequences of this article in the new Criminal Code.


“Fake news is indeed our enemy in freedom of expression, but we cannot tackle it by arresting the people who share it," Ade told VICE. "This can restrict our freedom of expression."

The thing is, the House of Representatives has tried to revise its Criminal Code 14 times since the 1960s, so who knows if they will succeed this time around? But Ade said that there's a 90 percent chance that it will pass—it's just a matter of time. And when the time comes, this fake news law will have a potential to restrict the freedom of press and criminalize journalists.

"In the ITE Law, there are articles related to fake news as well, but it’s in the framework of consumer protection,” Ade said. “Clearly the target is to protect consumers. In the revised Criminal Code, [the target] is unclear. I’m afraid it will target the freedom of press in the end."

Damar Juniarto, the Regional Coordinator of Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet), drew comparisons of how Germany combats its own fake news problem.

“When we talk about fake news, who will get [punished]? Is it the producer or the disseminator?" Damar told VICE. "In Germany, the target is the maker or the media where such fake news is distributed, so it is not the people who only happens to share it. Due to the low media literacy in Indonesia and the increasingly polarized population, anyone could be charged for spreading fake news.”


Last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration passed a law that will fine any platform, including Facebook, as much as 50 million euros if it doesn't immediately take down “illegal content.”

In Indonesia, it doesn't help that the general public’s trust on media is so low. A 2017 survey by Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS) shows only 67.2 percent of people trust the media, which still way more than they trust political parties (45.8 percent) and the House of Representatives (55.4 percent). But it's also way below their trust of the military (90.2 percent) and the Corruption Eradication Commission or KPK (83.1 percent).

So if the draft passes, it’s not impossible that certain groups will claim certain news as fake whenever they please. When the public trusts state agencies more than they do mainstream news platforms, it opens the door to the state accusing legitimate media companies of spreading fake stories whenever they disagree with the coverage, Damar said.

I mean, we've seen that before. In 1965-66, even when there was no internet access and smartphones, we couldn’t tell the difference between history, hoaxes, and fake news. The government went on a witch hunt, accusing people of supporting the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) when history shows that many of them weren't. What if calling something "fake news" becomes an easy way out to target vulnerable groups?

“Because the law limits people’s rights, it has to be clearly formulated in order to protect people from fake news,” Damar told me. “I hope the urge to limit people’s freedom of speech and expression won’t results in revoking people’s rights.”