Civil groups have condemned recent cyberattacks on the websites of two prominent institutions and the social media account of a scientist, all of whom have been critical of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, calling them a threat to democracy and freedom of speech.
The Twitter account of Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia (UI), was reportedly hacked on Wednesday. The handle, @drpriono, posted pictures that aimed to damage Pandu’s reputation. The account was secured on Sunday and the pictures deleted.
Prior to the incident, Pandu slammed a potential COVID-19 vaccine developed by Surabaya-based Airlangga University, saying it had yet to undergo clinical trials. He also criticized the university for not reporting its findings to the Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM) and handing it over to the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) and the Indonesian Army instead.
Pandu has been voicing his concerns about the government’s COVID-19-related policies, such as tourism promotion amid the pandemic, campaigns for a “new normal” and the ineffectiveness of rapid antibody tests that have become a requirement for traveling.
On Thursday midnight, news website tempo.co, which is a part of Tempo Media Group that also publishes Koran Tempo daily and Tempo weekly magazine, was hacked until early Friday. The media group’s pandemic reported has included criticism against government policies.
At 12:30 a.m., the homepage turned black and played “Gugur Bunga” (Fallen Flowers), a patriotic song honoring fallen wartime heroes, for 15 minutes. The screen displayed the message, “Stop Hoaxes, Don’t lie to the Indonesian People, Return to true journalistic ethics [and] obey the Press Council. Don’t [bow down to] people who pay. Deface By @xdigeeembok.”
Tempo.co chief editor Setri Yasra said the attack was an attempt to silence the media.
“We condemn anyone who tries to interfere with the work of the press. Press products are not always perfect, but we have a controlled mechanism, we have a press council to go to,” Setri told The Jakarta Post on Friday.
The website of a research group that is also known to be critical of the government’s coronavirus policies, the Center for Indonesia’s Strategic Development Initiatives (CISDI), was hacked for three days starting on Wednesday. The attack caused the institution to lose important documents on its website, cisdi.org.
The Civil Society Coalition, whose members include Amnesty International Indonesia, the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (YLBHI) and the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet), demanded that the government and law enforcement bodies transparently investigate the cyberattacks and punished the perpetrators.
Amnesty International Indonesia has recorded at least 35 cases of alleged intimidation and digital attacks on government critics since February last year.
“The government must explain and share their information to the public — whether the attacks against the critics have anything to do with the government — because the public doesn’t have the tools or access [for an investigation],” YLBHI chairwoman Asfinawati told The Jakarta Post on Saturday.
Amnesty International Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid said if the hackers were found to be part of the state, there should be no impunity.
“Silencing criticism is a violation of human rights. The people’s rights to express their opinion is guaranteed in both Indonesia’s Constitution and international human rights laws,” Usman said in a written statement on Friday.
Communications and Information Minister Johnny G Plate said labeling the cyberattacks as “silencing criticism” was a serious, groundless accusation.
“Don’t make accusations based on assumptions. Cybercrime happens every minute on any digital platform, including digital businesses and government websites, not just tempo.co or Pandu Riono’s account,” he told the Post on Saturday.
Johnny said the ministry was ready to help but expected the victims to be proactive in reporting their case to the ministry or to the police, so the latter could move quickly to track down the perpetrators. In addition, the ministry and the National Cyber and Encryption Agency (BSSN) could audit the security system of the hacked parties.
“The ministry cannot take action if there is no report. For example, we can’t just go into Tempo’s system without permission, right?”
He added that the ministry would like to evaluate and improve Tempo’s cybersecurity system.
“A strong system won’t be easily breached. The rising number of cyberattacks is a reminder for us to improve our security system and protect our digital space.”