(Jakarta) – Indonesian authorities should drop the criminal defamation charges against two prominent human rights defenders in Jakarta, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 3, 2023, the East Jakarta district court began the trial of Haris Azhar and Fatia Maulidiyanti based on a complaint filed by Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, a coordinating minister in President Joko Widodo’s cabinet, in August 2021.
The complaint concerns the activists’ discussion on YouTube about a report that alleged that the Indonesian government had conducted “illegal military operations” in Papua’s Central Highlands to access lucrative gold deposits. Prosecutors charged the two with defamation under the Criminal Code, slander under the Internet Law, and “spreading false news” under the 1946 False News Law, which carry maximum prison terms of 9 months, 4 years, and 10 years respectively.
“Prosecuting human rights activists for commenting on important rights issues sets back civil rights progress in Indonesia by years, if not decades,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately drop the criminal charges against Azhar and Maulidiyanti and turn greater attention to addressing the government’s abusive policies in Papua.”
Azhar, 47, served as the coordinator of Indonesia’s Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS) between 2010 and 2016. Azhar is also a founder of the Jakarta-based Lokataru human rights group and operates his own YouTube channel on which he has a regular talk show for his 220,000 subscribers.
On August 20, 2021, Maulidiyanti participated in an interview on Azhar’s YouTube channel during which they discussed a newly released report, “Ekonomi Politik Penempatan Militer di Papua” (“The Political Economy of the Military Deployment in Papua”), on human rights abuses in Indonesia’s Papua provinces. The report was jointly published by 10 nongovernmental organizations, including KontraS, #BersihkanIndonesia, Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, Indonesian Forum for Environment (Walhi), Pusaka Bentala Rakyat, Walhi Papua, Papua Legal Aid Institute, Jatam (Mining Advocacy Network), Greenpeace Indonesia, and Trend Asia.
The 17-page report concludes that the Indonesian government conducted “illegal military operations” in Papua’s Central Highlands, and that the military sought to control huge gold deposits on the northern side of Mt. Grasberg, an area known as the “Wabu Block” in Intan Jaya regency. The report alleged that the military deployment was intended to reduce the Indigenous population in the area, thus making it easier to move forward with mining operations. A 1999 survey estimated that about 117 million tons of gold ore in the Wabu Block.
In her appearance on Azhar’s talk show, Maulidiyanti discussed the involvement of Luhut Pandjaitan in obtaining access to mining concessions for companies operating in Intan Jaya. Azhar himself had visited Intan Jaya to investigate the concessions in 2020. Azhar’s video “Lord Luhut is behind the military-economic interest in troops deployment in Intan Jaya! Also, BIN general!” and the nongovernmental organization report referenced alleged links also between a former intelligence agency (Badan Intelijen Negara, or BIN) general and companies operating in Intan Jaya.
On August 26, 2021, Pandjaitan filed a civil complaint against the two activists, denying that he had any improper role in companies operating in the Central Highlands. He sought an apology from the two activists and damages of IDR100 billion (US$6.7 million). On September 22, 2021, Pandjaitan filed a complaint for criminal defamation against the two activists at the Jakarta police headquarters.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly said that the Indonesian government should revoke criminal defamation provisions of various laws, including the Internet Law as well as the Criminal Code. The Human Rights Watch 2010 report on Indonesia found that the laws allows powerful people, including public officials, to bring criminal charges against activists, journalists, and others who criticize them in violation of the right to freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch considers civil defamation sufficient for the purpose of protecting people's reputations, although they also can be abused.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, states in its General Comment on freedom of expression that “imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty” for defamation. In addition, “all public figures … are legitimately subject to criticism.”
However, instead of reforming laws to eliminate criminal defamation provisions, the Indonesian parliament passed a new criminal code on December 6, 2022, that contains provisions that seriously violate international human rights law and standards. Some of the problematic articles in the new code include criminal defamation provisions that undermine rights to freedom of speech.
“Scrutiny of the Indonesian government’s deployment of security forces in Papua and subsequent human rights abuses is part and parcel of a functioning democracy,” Harsono said. “The Indonesian authorities should not be responding to such criticism with criminal defamation cases, which undermine freedom of expression for all Indonesians.”