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Jakarta Post

Activists, lecturer raise concerns about criminalization of free speech in universities

  • Tri Indah Oktavianti

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, August 27, 2020   /   09:45 am
Activists, lecturer raise concerns about criminalization of free speech in universities Speaking in a webinar Tuesday, Era Purnama Sari of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) said university campuses had turned repressive and targeted academics with defamation charges under the Electronic Information and Transactions Law (ITE) law. (Shutterstock/Markus Mainka)

As universities have imposed stricter rules in regard to certain forms of expression, activists have voiced their concerns over the possible suppression of free speech in higher education institutions.

Speaking in a webinar Tuesday, Era Purnama Sari of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) said university campuses had turned repressive and targeted academics with defamation charges under the Electronic Information and Transactions Law (ITE) law.

“[University] campuses are being repressive and we need to ask why,” she said. “Campuses are supposed to be a place where a subset of ideas that might be considered taboo are challenged.”

Era referred to a case implicating Saiful Mahdi, a lecturer from Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, Aceh. Saiful was named a suspect in a defamation case in September 2019 after he criticized the result of a civil servant test for engineering school lecturers in the university’s WhatsApp chat group comprising around 100 lecturers.

He was reported to the police by the dean of Syiah Kuala University’s School of Engineering — who apparently was never part of the WhatsApp group — for defaming the dean, despite the fact that Saiful never mentioned any names.

Read also: Intimidation of government critics raises concerns about freedom of speech

For delivering his criticism, which was deemed offensive to campus executives, Saiful was charged under Article 27 of the ITE Law, which carries three months’ imprisonment and a Rp 10 million (US$ 683.4) fine, or an additional one-month imprisonment.

“In this case, freedom of speech on campus was treated like a crime,” Amnesty International Indonesia director Usman Hamid said.

“The impacts were not only the obstruction of freedom of expression on campus and the violation of Saiful’s personal rights but it also affected students' rights.”

Usman argued that higher education could only be effectively implemented within a free environment where the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn was guaranteed under the law. The criminalization of Saiful, he said, could serve as a setback in the promotion of critical thinking in higher education institutions. 

Meanwhile, Saiful Mahdi claimed that he had received an unfair trial as judges found him guilty despite no clear evidence proving that he had violated any law.

Read also: UI lecturers support #PapuanLivesMatter discussion, criticize university's disavowal

“We challenged the verdict at the Banda Aceh High Court, but it was rejected. Thus, we filed an appeal to the Supreme Court,” said Saiful, who has been a lecturer for 26 years, as he was disheartened by the current climate where academic freedom was under threat.

The Education and Culture Ministry’s director general of higher education, Nizam, said that the ministry would look into the matter before making any comment. However, Nizam said the ministry always guaranteed academic freedom for everyone in the community. 

“Academic freedom means that all members of academic society can develop knowledge within scientific principles and deliver the knowledge,” he told The Jakarta Post on Monday. “It is fully protected by law.”

Such cases are not new in the academic environment, as a student at National University (UNAS) in South Jakarta, Rasya Namadhania, was reported to the police, allegedly by the campus authority, after protesting the university’s fee discount policy in July.

The University of Indonesia was also in hot water after it issued a statement disavowing a public discussion held by the university’s student executive body on racism against Papuans in the legal system, as it was considered not to be a reflection of the university’s views.