Indonesian Police Just Arrested the Woman Who Started All Those Setya Novanto Memes
Did the meme war just get its first political prisoner?
Indonesian police are rounding-up people accused of creating and spreading a wildly popular meme making fun of House Speaker Setya Novanto—a man currently embroiled in what is shaping up to be Indonesia's biggest corruption case to date—in another blow to freedom of expression in the world's third-largest democracy.
Authorities detained Dyan Kemala Arrizzqi on Tuesday, accusing the 29-year-old woman of being one of the first people to spread a meme criticizing the Golkar politician's ongoing efforts to avoid anti-graft investigators' attempts to ask how half the money allocated to a nationwide government ID program could go missing. Setya has called in sick twice, going as far to release an image of himself in a hospital bed with some kind of breathing machine strapped to his face.
The image quickly went viral as Indonesians remixed the scene—often with hilarious results. This meme, and the following #ThePowerOfSetNov that rose out of the House Speaker's successful petition to get the charges thrown out of court, were the biggest things on Indonesian Twitter last month.
But the memes seem to have gotten under someone's skin. Police arrested Dyan at her Tangerang home on Tuesday and then announced that the investigation had also identified at least nine others potentially liable for prosecution under Indonesia's controversial Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law. Under the remarkably vague law, police are afforded wide latitude when it comes to deciding what kinds of speech are allowed, and which are illegal.
Those arrested under the ITE law face up to six years behind bars. Human rights groups have criticized this law, as well as a criminal defamation law that carries a five year jail sentence, as a tool for powerful people to shut down dissent in a 91-page report on Indonesia's increasingly repressive laws regulating speech online.
"The increased prison terms provided for in the ITE law, Indonesia's... internet law, pose an increasingly powerful threat to private citizens who express their thoughts or opinions online," the report concluded.
Memes are increasingly used as a form of protest in Indonesia, a country where corruption is widespread and powerful public officials do whatever they can to avoid prison sentences. Indonesia is, by most standards, a really corrupt place. Transparency International ranks the nation in 90th place, placing it well behind Turkey, Malaysia, and South Korea.
We've already written about how the Setya memes successfully kept the pressure on a man who has been able to somehow emerge from multiple corruption scandals unscathed. Setya's ability to avoid even the slightest penalty while still being implicated in so many corruption cases is just one of the reasons why so many Indonesians feel disillusioned with the nation's legal system. And memes are the easiest way to express these feelings online.
But Indonesian authorities are cracking down on this kind of criticism. In the last four months, at least four people have been charged under the ITE law for offensive memes and image macros. The ITE law has now been stretch so far that it's currently the focus of a judicial review at the behest of the nonprofit Advocat Cinta Tanah Air (ACTA).
It's exactly because of the vague wording of Indonesia's laws that the police are being called out to track down and imprison meme makers, explained Heru Sutadi, the director of the Institute for Communication and Technology. "In Indonesia, there are laws on defamation and if Pak SetNov wants to use his right and take legal steps, it can't be prohibited," he told VICE.
But that doesn't make it right, Heru added.
"The memes are actually a natural reaction from the public," he told VICE. "It's satire, so it should be seen as amusing. There's no need to over-react. These memes don't just appear out of nowhere. There is a cause. When it was time to be questioned, Pak SetNov was suddenly ill. But once he won the pretrial motion, he was instantly healed. Of course the public will wonder. And some may feel angry."
If the arrests were supposed to shut down criticism of Setya, then they are already having the opposite effect. By Thursday, a new hashtag started to appear next to #ThePowerOfSetNov—#TangkapSaya, or roughly "arrest me too." The meme war soldiers on.