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Jakarta Post

Criticism 'not an insult': Police's plan to nab slanderers of govt over COVID-19 questioned

  • Ghina Ghaliya
    Ghina Ghaliya

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, April 6, 2020   /   04:56 pm
Criticism 'not an insult': Police's plan to nab slanderers of govt over COVID-19 questioned A resident stands next to a COVID-19 information service center at Dr Soesilo District Hospital in Tegal regency, Central Java. (Antara/Oky Lukmansyah)

The National Police have decided to step up social media monitoring to conduct sweeping against what they deem to be slanders against the ruling government in relation to the coronavirus outbreak in the country, prompting critics to warn the force not to take public criticism as an insult.

According to a classified police telegram dated April 4, a copy of which was obtained by The Jakarta Post, National Police chief Gen. Idham Azis called on his personnel to start cyber patrols to monitor the "development of the situation and opinion in cyberspace".

The telegram, signed by the police's Criminal Investigation Department (Bareskrim) chief Comr. Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo, specifically ordered the monitoring of the dissemination of hoaxes surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, defamation of the President and government officials as well as online shopping scams related to the selling of protective gear, masks and hand sanitizer.

It also ordered the police "to carry out strict law enforcement" against those found to have committed such actions.

According to the telegram, those who spread false information related to government policies in handling the contagious disease will be subject to articles 14 and/or 15 of the Criminal Code, which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years behind bars.

Those found to have insulted the President and government officials could be charged with defamation and insult under the Criminal Code's Article 207, which carries a maximum sentence of 1.5 years in prison, while people involved in online shopping scams related to medical equipment will be charged under the 2016 Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law.

Some critics, however, have raised concerns over the police's plan as they questioned what would constitute an insult, considering that lamenting the government's policies over the handling of the coronavirus outbreak should be seen as criticism.

Read also: 'Extremely disturbing': Jump in Jakarta funerals raises fears of unreported COVID-19 deaths

Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid said the plan would have an adverse effect on the country's freedom of speech and instead would drive people to refrain from expressing their opinions for fear of being criminalized.

"Many people feel at a loss amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including due to some of the government's policies [...] Without public criticism and suggestions, it will be harder for the government to know what needs to be improved in the handling of the disease," Usman said on Monday.

Members of the public have continued to voice their concerns about the pandemic on social media, including over what has been deemed the government's slow response to the pandemic, as well as the lack of protection for medical workers, as the number of positive cases and fatalities from COVID-19 continues to surge in the country.

The official government count as of Monday showed that 2,491 people in the country had been infected, while 209 people had died of the disease. Some 20 doctors in the country have reportedly died as a result of contracting the virus.

Lawmaker Habiburrokhman of the House of Representatives’ Commission III overseeing legal affairs said in a hearing with Idham Azis recently that public criticism of the government or state officials was normal.

“When people say the government and the House are incompetent in handling COVID-19, it is not an insult or a hoax. We have to let it go because the people are in extreme fear [of the pandemic]," the Gerindra Party politician said.

Sarifuddin Suding of the National Mandate Party (PAN) said it was reasonable for the President or the government to receive criticism, both constructive and destructive.

Read also: Turf war undermines COVID-19 fight in Indonesia

"Criticism of the authorities is common in a democratic country like Indonesia and therefore law enforcement officials should not forbid people from making their voices heard," he said.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's spokesperson Fadjroel Rahman had previously called on the public to hold back on negatively criticizing how the government is handling the coronavirus pandemic, saying the public should focus on following the physical distancing measures to curb the transmission of the virus.

“It would be better if the negative criticism was put on hold first," he said on March 21.

As of April 3, National Police spokesperson Sr. Comr. Argo Yuwono said they had processed 72 cases of false information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic across the country.

He said the suspects were subject to multiple articles, including Article 45 of the ITE Law, which carries a maximum sentence of six years in prison, as well as articles 14 and 15 of the Criminal Code, which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

United Development Party (PPP) lawmaker Arsul Sani called on the police on Monday to be careful in carrying out their duty, asking them to respect the principle of due process of law as to "avoid arbitrary law enforcement."