Jakarta – Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment (Menko Marves) Luhut Binsar Panjaitan has threatened to audit non-government organisations (NGOs) after accusing them of spreading incorrect information.
Panjaitan made the threat when he was asked to respond to criticisms from environmental activist groups about the government's claim that the rate of deforestation has declined.
"We want to audit these NGOs, so don't spread reports which aren't true, yes, I've already said we want to audit them, [your reports] are untrue, you are providing reports which are not true", said Pandjaitan in response to a question during an interview broadcast on CNN Indonesia TV on the evening of Friday November 12.
Panjaitan questioned the source of the data held by the NGOs saying that that the data released by the government was compiled not just by the government but also international institutions. On the other hand, according to Panjaitan, there is now satellite technology which cannot lie.
Constitutional law expert Margarito Kamis is of the view that Panjaitan's threat to audit the NGOs has no legal basis and warned that the government cannot just audit or evaluate NGOs as it pleases.
"Under a legal framework, the problem is, what is the basis for this examination? What is the basis of this plan? Where does the Menko get his authority for this from? What is the source of his authority? It cannot be under the constitution, state administration, people don't have such authority just because they're from the government", said Kamis when contacted on the evening of Tuesday November 16.
"Such an authority must be defined explicitly under law or a government regulation, derived from law. Even if they're a president, let alone a minister. There lies the legal problem", he added.
Furthermore, continued Kamis, if an NGO receives funding from overseas then they already have to report it to the government. This does not mean however that the government can evaluate or audit such a report.
This stipulation is included under Regulation in Lieu of Law Number 2/2017 on Revisions to Law Number 17/2013 on Social Organisations.
"Under Law 17/2013 organisation which obtain funds from overseas must report their activities. That's okay. But is such a report the same as an evaluation, an audit? When are they audited, what is audited?", he asked.
Kamis believes that if Panjaitan goes ahead and audits these NGOs then it will only create a negative perception of the government and the public will see the government as authoritarian.
He also suggests that President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo intervene and reprimand Panjaitan so that he cancels the plan to audit the NGOs.
"My suggestion to the president is stop this. Because it's bad. If you want to do it fix (the regulations) first. It's too much, too authoritarian", he said.
Form of censorship
Panjaitan's plan to audit the NGOs is also being seen as a form of censorship.
Jakarta State University (UNJ) political observer Ubedilah Badrun says that NGOs represent one of the democratic forces which often voices criticisms against the government. Because of this, he believes that Panjaitan's move is at threat to freedom of expression.
"If LBP [Panjaitan] continues to make threats like this, meanwhile he holds the post of Menko Marves, this has no relationship with the job of auditing an NGO, so it can be concluded that LBP's move can be included in the category of abuse of power and will be seen as an effort which is inclined towards what is called censorship", said Badrun.
This "wall" of censorship hasn't only happened with Luhut's recent remarks.
Badrun recalled that in 2007 the government through then Attorney General Hendarman Supandji planned to draft a law as a legal basis for auditing NGOs. The plan however never materialised.
According to Badrun, right from the start many parties rejected the plan. He is also concerned that such a discourse will resurface following Panjaitan's threat to audit the NGOs.
"A law on auditing NGOs would be mistaken, because it conflicts with the basic principles of a democratic country related to freedom of association and organisation. If it now reemerges, it would mean there is something not right with the thinking of people in the Palace and the parliament in their understanding of democracy", said Badrun.
"It is appropriate to suspect that the motive is to silence the NGOs. Because the NGOs are a democratic force which often voices criticisms of the government", he added.
Furthermore, according to Badrun, the auditing an NGO is the prerogative of an internal and professional auditor requested by the NGO itself. NGOs have no relationship with Panjaitan's role in government.
"Because LBP doesn't have the authority in this case, the government doesn't have the authority to audit NGOs unless the NGO uses government funds", he concluded. (ugo/ugo)
[Translated by James Balowski. The original title of the article was "Tembok Pembungkaman di Balik Ancaman Luhut Audit LSM".]