Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan, center. (Antara Photo/Andika Wahyu)

Johannes Nugroho: 'Treason' Clause Could Endanger Indonesian Democracy


FEBRUARY 03, 2016

Briefing the press about the government’s plan to expand Law No. 15/2003 on the Eradication of Terrorism late last month, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Luhut  Panjaitan made a surprising revelation: a clause to criminalize any act deemed lèse-majesté against the “Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia” was to be included in the revised act. As such, this plan should sound the alarm bells for the country’s civil society and human rights activists.

“If you [as a citizen] don’t recognize the Republic of Indonesia, for example, that is an insult [to the state]. OK, then we will act against you,” Luhut said. While he further explained that the clause would apply to those who wish to set up a different form of government in Indonesia, such as the Islamic State, it was clear that its wording is bound to be vague.

In fact, judging from Luhut’s train of thought, it is also apparent that he equates terrorism with treason against the state. Hence, the minister’s definition of terrorism might be anything that is viewed to be insulting, denigrating, questioning and threatening the dignity of the state or its integrity.

Although such a clause may seem like a godsend for Indonesians weary of seeing and hearing the excesses of religious hard-liners, its implications may also be grievous towards Indonesia’s reasonable degree of freedom of speech. It is worth nothing that our current right to free speech, imperfect as it may be, was indeed hard-won after the fall of the autocratic New Order regime in 1998.

Despite the frequent commotion characterizing Indonesia's maturing democracy, we today enjoy greater freedom of expression than most of our neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a caveat that is quite extraordinary and something we should be proud of. Therefore it is paramount that we ensure any new law designed to maximize our security ̶ or any revision to it ̶ does not end up impinging upon free speech.

Freedom of expression is particularly indispensable to the working of our democracy because of the still-rampant corruption and abuse of power taking place within government ranks and the justice system. In many cases the freedom to expose and criticize is the only thing that stands between outright impunity of the state and its personnel and the just administration of the law.

Free speech has also been the only means by which civil society may seek to perform checks and balances on the state apparatus. The filmed action of Yogyakarta’s resident Elanto Wijoyo trying to stop the convoy of Harley Davidson riders who disregarded traffic lights last year, for instance, went viral in Indonesia and exposed the police to much criticism and ridicule for its misuse of procedure to exempt the recreational non-emergency convoy from the law.

On a more serious note, a vague-sounding legal clause criminalizing “treason” against the state may be used to justify repression against issues and groups considered anathema to the government. Even without such a clause, late last year the police were able to disperse and arrest the Papuan university students who staged a protest to demand a referendum for the country’s most troublesome province in Jakarta. Later on, under pressure from democracy activists and media coverage, the police eventually released the students.

It is easy enough to imagine how the Papuan students would have fared, had they been charged with “treason." Their demand for a referendum in which the Papuans might vote to secede from Indonesia could well have been interpreted as a seditious act against the territorial integrity of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. The democracy activists protesting on their behalf might even have been arrested for supporting “terrorism” against the state.

And this is precisely what has transpired in Thailand since the May 2014 military coup d’état. Using the existing and yet multi-interpretative lèse-majesté law — originally intended to protect the dignity of the royal family — he Thai government has lately been making more than its usual share of indictments. Bordering on the ludicrous, the law was even used against a factory worker accused of disparaging the king’s dog pet on Facebook.

Amid its frenzied control over what its citizens post on social media, the Thai government has also been tightening the knot on the press, leading to the occasional blank pages in the country’s version of The New York Times and the recent revocation of the work permits for Stephane Peray, a French national and political cartoonist to The Nation newspaper who worked under the name Stephff.

It would be unthinkable for Indonesia to regress on its democratic ideals as Thailand has done recently. Yet a vague “treason” clause in a law designed to combat terrorism might just put us on such a slippery slope. Given the police reluctance to act against hard-line groups, can we even be sure that such a clause will even be effective in dealing with radicalization? Worse still, can we be sure it won’t be used to repress civil liberties? As activist and entrepreneur Joichi Ito once said, “If we destroy human rights and rule of law in the response to terrorism, they have won.”

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at and on Twitter: