An Indonesian woman plugs into social networking platforms on her mobile phone in Jakarta. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo
An Indonesian woman plugs into social networking platforms on her mobile phone in Jakarta. Photo: AFP / Bay Ismoyo

Indonesia’s House of Representatives speaker and Golkar Party chairman Setya Novanto has managed once again to dodge liability in one of the country’s biggest ever corruption cases.

But online detractors who have made light of the Teflon politician and his perceived theatrics may not be as lucky after he filed charges against their online mockery and satirical social media posts.

Novanto is one of the country’s most controversial politicians due to a string of close calls with corruption investigations.

That includes the still unfolding e-KTP scandal, in which as much as US$172 million is missing from state funds intended for an ambitious national electronic identification card scheme.

He has been accused of receiving 575 billion rupiah (US$44 million) in bribes for the project, a charge which if proven could land him 20 years in prison.

The speaker of Indonesia's parliament, Setya Novanto, talks to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 18, 2017. Antara Foto/Agung Rajasa via Reuters
The speaker of Indonesia’s parliament, Setya Novanto, talks to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 18, 2017. Antara Foto/Agung Rajasa via Reuters

But Novanto repeatedly failed to attend questioning sessions at the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) in September, with his legal team submitting medical certificates claiming ill-health.

The excuse was met with skepticism across Jakarta, with Novanto eventually feeling compelled to share a photo with his Golkar party colleagues of himself in a hospital bed.

The picture was leaked shortly after and was widely derided online, with commenters pointing to image discrepancies, including a heart-monitoring machine that appeared to show the party boss flat-lining.

At the same time, the KPK was forced to drop its investigation after Novanto won a pretrial motion – a legal challenge favored by corruption suspects which argues the KPK does not have enough evidence to pursue them – effectively shutting down further evidence-gathering against him.

The ruling, made by the South Jakarta District Court in late September, prompted the #ThePowerOfSetnov hashtag to trend on social media, with netizens making light of Novanto’s seeming ability to dodge the law.

Shortly after, Indonesian social media was flooded with memes of the hospital photo, including one manipulated image showing President Joko Widodo taking a selfie with the bedridden Novanto and another portraying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watching the scene on television.

Indonesia-Joko Widodo-Setya Novanto-Facebook-Meme-September 2017
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (L) takes a selfie next to House of Representatives Speaker Setya Novanto in a manipulated image spread on social media. Photo: Twitter

Internet gags have been elevated to legitimate political discourse in Indonesia, prompting widespread mainstream coverage of social media responses to current affairs. Now, the lawmakers who are often the butt of online punchlines are fighting back with lawsuits.

The Information and Electronic Transactions Act, known by its Indonesian abbreviation UU ITE, allows for six-year prison terms and maximum 1 billion rupiah (US$73,700) fines.

Ostensibly an extension of defamation codes to cover digital media, the law has been used to target individuals for innocuous comments made on social media in what critics see as freedom of expression-curbing overreach.

UU ITE made global headlines in 2014 after student Florence Sihombing was targeted for calling central Java city Yogyakarta ‘idiotic’ after a run-in with a service station attendant in a post to social network site Path, an app which combines photos and messaging services.

She was charged for ‘inciting hatred’ and faced a potential six years in prison for the comment. Sihombing was eventually given a suspended sentence after apologizing to the people of Yogyakarta, but the case set a precedent allowing for charges to be lodged for seemingly any critical online comments about the state.

That trend is gathering at a worrying pace. Dyann Kemala Arrizqi, a 29-year-old member of the fledgling center-left Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), is now the target of Novanto’s legal ire and faces charges under the law.

Police told local media Novanto had reported a number of other people who posted critical comments about his alleged ill-health, but Arrizqi is so far the only one to be named a suspect.

Kintan Ayunda Wisnu, from Indonesia, types in the Hubud co-working space in the town of Ubud on Bali. The Indonesian island is becoming a hotspot for digital nomads. Photo: Christoph Sator/DPA
Indonesians in a co-working space in the town of Ubud on Bali. Photo: Christoph Sator/DPA

The report, filed by Novanto’s legal team on October 10 but only recently made public, alleges Arrizqi spread defamatory images and videos over social media. They include an animated video featuring Novanto in hospital counting money, while another image has a caption of him bragging about dodging arrest

Arrizqi admitted to sharing the images, but says it was not politically motivated nor requested by PSI’s leadership. She faces up to six- years imprisonment if found guilty.

Despite the controversy, Indonesia enjoys one of the region’s highest ratings for press and online freedoms. Its massive population has recently flocked to social media in a thriving online community.

Indonesia’s history of oppression under former dictator Suharto and subsequent democratic opening puts the country in a unique position, says Aulia Masna, a technology commentator.

“When the so-called reform era took over, it was as if a huge dam had burst and people were free to express themselves on many societal and political issues,” said Masna. “Satire and parody had always been part of the people’s way to relieve themselves of that pressure, but people had to do it in a subtle, roundabout way.”

When the opportunity arose for freer expression via online forums and social media, “all that subtlety went the way of the dodo despite actual laws forbidding slander, insult, blasphemy and the like still in place,” Masna said.

Like many global democracies, Indonesia has struggled to control the lawful use of technology while maintaining freedoms.

Authorities said today they will summon executives of messaging services and search engines, including Google, to demand they remove obscene content, Reuters reported. They dropped an earlier threat to block WhatsApp Messenger after “GIF” images were taken off the service, the reports said.

The Tenor GIF application is seen on a mobile phone screen in this illustration photo November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration
The Tenor GIF application is seen on a mobile phone screen in an illustration photo November 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Thomas White

In August, the forced shutdown of fake news syndicate Saracen and the arrests of its ringleaders underscored the government’s severe view of rising digital threats. Saracen had allegedly been producing for-hire fake news ‘campaigns’ for just a few thousand dollars each.

While investigations are ongoing, the group has been linked to the high-profile online campaigns that sparked big street protests against Jakarta governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Purnama, who was later jailed on contentious blasphemy charges.

The Ministry of Communications has focused on curbing the use of technology to spread radical and terrorism-related content. In that direction, authorities recently banned encrypted messaging app Telegram on allegations it was being using to spread radical content.

The ban was overturned only after the app’s founder, Pavel Durov, met with government officials in Jakarta. Telegram has been referred to as the messaging service of choice for extremist groups worldwide due to its ultra-secure communications.

The risk, however, is that opportunistic politicians use the law to suppress fair comment and diminish vibrant online dialogue. The UU ITE’s vague language means even those not engaged in producing fake news or spreading radical content can be targeted by officials for their critical online posts.

But many Indonesians remain undeterred by the threats. Masna suggests that despite some lawmakers’ best suppressive efforts people fed-up with the country’s unreformed politics will not easily relinquish their right to mock and critique online.

“In times of conflict and difficulties, humor is often the choice of escape and politics almost always presents itself as a target,” Masna said. “Given the levels of political absurdity in this country, it’s inevitable that people will incorporate strong humor in their commentaries.”