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December 18, 2023

Trial Observation Report: Indonesia v. Muhammad Asrul; Indonesia v. Stella Monica

Flag of Indonesia blowing in the wind.

Flag of Indonesia blowing in the wind.

Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/2503224501

Executive Summary

The cases brought against journalist Muhammad Asrul and social media user Stella Monica Hendrawan demonstrate the abusive reach of Indonesia’s Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) law. This expansive and overly broad law, which contravenes international standards on freedom of expression, has been repeatedly weaponized by those in power to silence a sweeping range of criticism and opposition expressed online. Although a new Criminal Code will replace some of the most oppressive provisions of the ITE law at the beginning of 2026, these new provisions resemble the old, and prosecutions under the ITE law are continuing in the meantime. As the cases of Mr. Asrul and Ms. Monica show, the freedom of expression of all Indonesians – from journalists to consumers – continues to be at risk under the ITE law.

Muhammad Asrul is a journalist who was prosecuted and convicted of online defamation under Article 27(3) of the ITE law after reporting on the alleged corruption of the son of the mayor of Palopo. He was also charged with (but not convicted of) deliberately causing public unrest by disseminating fabricated information under Article 14 (1) of Law No. 1 of 1946 and distributing information with the intent to cause hatred under Articles 28(2) and 45(A)(2) of the ITE law. The complaint against Mr. Asrul should have been diverted to the Press Council for an assessment of whether criminal proceedings were warranted. This process is stipulated in Indonesia’s Press Law and the Memorandum of Understanding between the Press Council and the police. However, Mr. Asrul was immediately subject to a criminal investigation and, later, pretrial detention. After lengthy proceedings, he was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison. Despite finding that Mr. Asrul’s articles were journalistic works—and thus the special procedures for cases against journalists should presumably have applied—the Palopo District Court held that it had jurisdiction to hear the case, even though those special processes had not been followed. Equally troubling was the District Court apparently creating a new rule in its decision that “the Press Council itself can no longer handle press dispute complaints whose cases have been reported to the Police or submitted to the Court.” As the Press Council has noted, Mr. Asrul’s conviction sets a “bad precedent” for press freedom in Indonesia and is likely to have a chilling effect on investigative journalists across the country. As for Mr. Asrul himself, his professional and personal life suffered greatly.

In addition to violations of his right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Mr. Asrul was subject to arbitrary detention when he was detained for 36 days after his arrest. Imprisonment for defamation is never warranted under international standards. Mr. Asrul’s pretrial detention was also not properly justified with concrete evidence as to whether there was a risk of flight, interference with the evidence, or recurrence of crime.

Stella Monica is a recent college graduate who shared critical posts about her experience at a beauty clinic on her private social media account. The clinic filed a complaint against Ms. Monica for her posts – which constituted speech protected under the ICCPR – and she was also charged with online defamation under Article 27(3). While the court eventually held that Ms. Monica’s posts were not defamatory and rightfully acquitted her, Ms. Monica endured nearly two years of criminal proceedings (including 21 hearings and five postponements), which greatly impacted her mental and emotional health. Moreover, as a result of the publicity around the proceedings against her, she and her family received threats and were harassed.

Indonesia should immediately decriminalize defamation and reform the ITE law, particularly Article 27(3), to be in line with international standards. As seen in the criminal proceedings against Mr. Asrul and Ms. Monica, the vague language of this provision gives political and corporate interests a powerful tool with which to stifle the freedom of expression.

Read the full report (English)