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The speaker of Indonesia's parliament Setya Novanto talks to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 18, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Dyann Kemala Arrizzqi’s Instagram feed is filled with her travel photos, demonstrations of her prowess at traditional Balinese dance poses, and wry memes. But now the content of her Instagram feed may get her sent to an Indonesian prison.

That’s because police in Jakarta arrested her last week for posting an Instagram meme in September that purportedly violates the defamation article of Indonesia’s Internet Law and the Criminal Code, which allows for prosecution under criteria including “ruining one’s good name.” The meme in question was a photoshopped picture of Setya Novanto, the speaker of Indonesia’s House of Representatives and chairman of the powerful Golkar party, showing him in a hospital bed hooked up to a respirator and heart monitor.

The Novanto meme is one of several that have circulated on social media in Indonesia that publicly ridicule the speaker’s reaction to corruption allegations leveled against him involving a massive graft case concerning US$175 million of lost state revenues. Suggesting that Novanto was unfit to be the target of the corruption probe, Golkar circulated a photo of him in a hospital bed suffering from apparent heart and kidney problems. That initial image has now sparked a host of copycat memes mocking the speaker.

Although a Jakarta court dismissed the corruption charges against Novanto last month, he has continued to respond to these memes by reporting a total of 68 Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter account holders for criminal defamation, including Arrizzqi. If convicted, she faces a maximum penalty of four years in prison. Police have yet to file charges against other individuals who Novanto has reported.

Criminal defamation laws have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to express critical thoughts or opinions, particularly when the wealthy or powerful are implicated – and this has long been the case in Indonesia. While international human rights law permits governments to restrict freedom of expression to protect the reputation of others, these restrictions must be both necessary and narrowly defined. Arrizzqi’s prosecution for criminal defamation is an entirely disproportionate punishment for the alleged harm to the speaker’s reputation, and Novanto should be the first to recognize this.  

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