Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that the growing number of people being jailed for sending WhatsApp messages critical of the government and private companies is having a a disastrous and chilling effect on free speech and the government should repeal criminal provisions that restrict peaceful free expression online.
HRW made the statement after a Surabaya court sentenced Saidah Saleh Syamlan to 10 months jail for criminal defamation after she sent four WhatsApp messages critical of a bank’s performance.
“Sending someone to prison on flimsy evidence for sending WhatsApp messages critical of a company will have a disastrous and chilling effect on free speech”, said HRW Indonesian researcher Andreas Harsono.
“The Saidah Syamlan case shows that criminal defamation laws are open to manipulation by people with political or financial power who can influence the behavior of investigators.”
In 2010 HRW published an analysis of the negative impact of criminal defamation laws in Indonesia (including the 2008 Internet Law) and urged their repeal saying the laws are being exploited by powerful people to retaliate against people who had made allegations of corruption, fraud, or misconduct against powerful interests or government officials.
Although the House of Representatives amended the 2008 Internet Law in 2016 – reducing the jail term for defamation from six years to four – it retained criminal penalties if alleged defamatory statements are communicated over the internet.
HRW said that the government should repeal criminal defamation articles – including in the 2016 Internet Law – replacing them with civil defamation provisions that contain adequate safeguards to protect freedom of expression from unjustified interference.
“It is shocking that people like Syamlan can go to prison on the basis of vague and severe criminal defamation laws compounded by questionable evidence”, said Harsono.
“Instead, the government should establish civil rather than criminal penalties, and only applicable in cases in which the information is not an opinion, but a demonstrably false claim that causes real harm or damage.”