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Cemetery workers burying a victim from the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, during a funeral in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 7, 2020.  © 2020 Yogi Aroon Sidabariba / INA Photo Agency / Sipa USA via AP Images

(Jakarta) Indonesia’s government is failing to provide transparency and access to information to battle the COVID-19 outbreak, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have been charging people under abusive criminal defamation laws for their online comments about the coronavirus and the government’s response.

Indonesian officials admit that government reporting on the virus outbreak has been inadequate. Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman said on April 5, 2020 that the Health Ministry’s statistics did not match the figures that provincial administrations were reporting, and that the ministry’s data was limited, making his office “unable to provide the complete data.” Governor Anies Baswedan of Jakarta, whose city and suburbs account for half of all infections, expressed concern that the number of infections and deaths has been significantly underreported due to the low rates of testing.

“The Indonesian government needs to ramp up testing to know the true extent of the coronavirus outbreak in the country,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should also uphold the right to information and provide accurate statistics to the public.”

The number of people who have contracted COVID-19 in Indonesia is unclear. On April 7, the Health Ministry announced there were 2,491 positive cases with 209 deaths and that 13,186 people had been tested since December 30, including the crews of the cruise ships World Dream and Diamond Princess. However, as of April 6, Jakarta’s Department of Parks and Cemeteries recorded that 639 people had been buried with COVID-19 protocols, suggesting that many more people suspected of having COVID-19 died without being tested.

Senior officials initially downplayed the virus. In February, Health Minister Terawan Putranto rejected Harvard University’s calculation that questioned his claim that there were no COVID-19 cases in Indonesia. Putranto reiterated the importance of “praying” to prevent the virus.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced the first two positive cases, in Depok, near Jakarta, on March 2. This was more than a month after China had imposed a lockdown in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province on January 23.

Testing remains very limited, with fewer than 20 sites to process tests for the entire country of 274 million people. Most tests were initially only possible in laboratories on Java Island, Indonesia’s most densely populated island, with 6 provinces. In April, 12 new testing machines arrived for 12 more provinces, out of the total of 34.

Indonesia also faces a persistent shortage of personal protective equipment and medical masks, prompting many medical workers to use raincoats. The Indonesian Medical Association stated that at least 31 medical workers, including 20 doctors and 4 nurses, had died so far due to COVID-19. Indonesia’s general hospitals are also underequipped, with only 661 intensive care units, and only half of them with ventilators.

On March 15, President Jokowi ordered people to, “Stay home, work from home, pray from home,” but he has not imposed tighter national restrictions on movement. On April 7, the local Jakarta government announced it will impose a two-week large-scale restriction in Jakarta as of April 10, that includes closing schools and workplaces and limits on religious events and cultural activities.

Indonesian authorities are using the country’s long-abused criminal defamation laws to crack down on public criticism of the government’s response to the outbreak. The National Police have charged 51 people under criminal defamation laws for allegedly spreading “fake news” about the coronavirus. They include five netizens who had allegedly spread false information on their social media accounts, including claims that a Muslim woman flying to Saudi Arabia for a religious pilgrimage had died suddenly from the virus at Jakarta’s airport. Police have also blocked 38 social media accounts.

The authorities arrested three men for a social media message claiming that an area of northern Jakarta had COVID-19 cases after the government sprayed disinfectant there. A 58-year-old man in Bogor was arrested for uploading a video on his Instagram account that included claims that the coronavirus was a pretext to have “mass murders.”

Police also arrested a young man for allegedly calling Jokowi’s refusal to order a lockdown “stupid” and for anti-Chinese comments on his Twitter account.

The government should counter inaccurate information posted online or in the media by providing the public with clear, regular, and factually accurate information about the coronavirus and transmission, and by debunking misinformation.

Under international human rights law, the Indonesian government has an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds. Governments are responsible for providing information necessary for protecting and promoting rights, including the right to health. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put in jeopardy the right itself. A rights-respecting response to COVID-19 needs to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus is readily available and accessible to all.

“Indonesia’s leaders should not let the coronavirus be a pretext for a police crackdown on free expression,” Harsono said. “It’s pathetic that during a national crisis, the Indonesian authorities seem more interested in silencing online critics than undertaking a massive COVID-19 public information campaign.”

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