the internet

It's Becoming Illegal to Make Offensive Memes in Indonesia

Those lulz may land you behind bars.

by Adi Renaldi
20 September 2017, 10:27am

Illustration by Dini Lestari 

It's getting dangerous to do it for the lulz in Wkwkwk Land. Indonesian authorities are increasingly arresting people accused of making—and sharing—memes that, in their eyes, cross the line.

The offending memes ran the gamut from the offensive, but relatively innocuous, to some of the most racist, misogynistic, and hateful stuff coming out of the darker corners of the Chans today. Most were attacking Indonesia's current President Joko Widodo and his family. Some were made by individuals with long-standing grievances with the president and the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), while others came from the country's most-notorious, and well-connected army of paid trolls: Saracen.

In the last three months:

  • A Jakarta security guard was arrested over a meme he posted on Facebook showing President Jokowi and PDI-P chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri in a post-coital embrace.
  • A college student in Bandung was arrested for spreading an image macro attacking First Lady Iriana Widodo for not always wearing a hijab with a vulgar smear campaign.
  • Another man was jailed for 15 months over a Photoshopped image of President Jokowi working as a roadside tire repair man in a meme that implied that the president was only fit for low-skilled, "degrading work."
  • Police busted the for-profit troll army Saracen for hate speech after the organization used hundreds of thousands of fake social media accounts to attack politicians with memes, fake news stories, and outright trolling.

So what's going on here? How can someone get arrested over a meme? Indonesian authorities have a deep arsenal of laws that can be used to arrest individuals for what the post online. The country's laws list defamation as a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison. It doesn't matter if the offending information is true, or a work of satire or comedy, under the country's defamation laws. If it is seen as offensive, or disrespectful, of an individual or—especially—a state institution, then it's considered defamation.

A second, but even more sweeping, law called the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law affords law enforcement wide latitude at deciding what kinds of online speech are punishable by the law. People have been charged under the IT law for everything from private Facebook messages outlining suspicions of marital infidelity to social media posts attacking an entire city as "poor, stupid, and uncultured."

The IT law is so broad and prone to misuse that a prominent Indonesian press association accused the government of trying to outlaw people's opinions. The courts are now hearing a judicial review on the IT law filed by the nonprofit Advocat Cinta Tanah Air (ACTA) that accused authorities of using specific lines to silence the voice of activists.

"The IT law is open to many interpretations," said Supriyadi Widodo Eddyono, the executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR). "There are at least three clauses used to criminalize those seen as spreading hate, including meme producers."

The law makes anything that violates the public's decency illegal, Supriyadi explained. The problem is that notions of what, exactly, is considered indecent are open to interpretation and potential abuse by those in power. The country's criminal code actually devotes an entire chapter on indecent speech and actions—a fact that actually makes it harder to criticize the law, Supriyadi said. The basic definition of indecency today seems to depend on who was offended and how powerful, or close to the center of power, the person is.

"The government needs to have a thicker skin against criticism," Supriyadi told VICE. "If you don't have the power to withstand criticism, then don't work for the government."

This law, and others like it, creates an imbalance of power between the government and the people, Supriyadi said. It makes people think twice before expressing their opinions, let alone their outrage, online. It stifles free speech and clogs the judicial system with frivolous defamation claims filed by anyone angry over something critical they read online.

"People are so sensitive these days," Supriyadi said. "Small things get reported to the police right away. I mean if we're talking about memes, it's very contextual, just like the situation of our country at the moment. Those clauses in the IT law can be used anytime, whenever the government pleases."

It's all enough that meme makers like Adi Surya might have to think twice before posting that macro to their Instagram. Adi started making memes in his high school years as a way to fight boredom and express himself.

"I started in 2014," he said. "Initially, I only posted on private WhatsApp or LINE groups, but now I do it on Instagram."

There are millions of others out there like Surya—young, connected Indonesians who feel more comfortable expressing their opinions through memes than tweet storms or lengthy Facebook posts. Memes are inherently draped in layer-after-layer of irony and detachment, easy to make, and even easier to share.

"It's just for fun, really," Surya told VICE. "I like the sarcasm in memes. The jokes are just there to mock people."

But today, Surya is more careful with what he posts online. "At first I was concerned about copyright since some of the pictures I used were taken from the internet," he said. "But now, I have to be even more careful in making memes."

Still, he can't think of any other way to get his views out there. "I try to be neutral, but sometimes it's difficult," he said. "I try to look at things from the bright side; to speak for those who are affected."

But we now live in the age of the weaponized meme. Memes can shift elections. They can be used by foreign intelligence agencies as easily as regular people. There's an actual legal case going on in the United States over the racist alt-right mascot Pepe the Frog filed by the frog's creator. And, in Indonesia, fake news can have very real world implications.

Still, free speech advocates and legal experts warn against this kind of over-zealous policing of the internet. Supriyadi, of ICJR, said that the country's online defamation laws threaten to undermine the very freedoms the nation put into action during the post-Suharto Reformasi years.

"It's not democratic at all," Supriyadi said. "Those who are criticized shouldn't use the government's tools to criminalize their critics."

Another expert agreed that Indonesian citizens should feel protected to make memes under the country's law—within reason.

"Producing memes is the right of Indonesian citizen and protected by law," said Heru Sutadi, the director of the Information and Communications Technology Institute. "However, everything needs to be in accordance with the law. There's a law that prohibits defamation and slander. But obviously there needs to be proof, but the Iriana Joko Widodo meme definitely crossed the line."