Banning hate speech: The Jakarta Post

Indonesian policemen standing guard on a street after clashing with residents in Jakarta on Aug 20, 2015.
Indonesian policemen standing guard on a street after clashing with residents in Jakarta on Aug 20, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

In its editorial on Nov 6, 2015, The Jakarta Post welcomes the ban and calls on leaders to explain how the police could do their job in this regard better

A circular issued by the National Police instructing the entire force on how to identify, prevent and handle hate speech should be welcomed.

At the very least it means that the police can no longer give lame excuses, such as preventing "social unrest" and "safeguarding public order", when standing idly by during the forced closure of a church or mosque - as happened in Aceh Singkil just a week after the circular was issued - or claiming to be outnumbered during the beating of a transgender, for example. 

For the circular, which the police say was signed on Oct 8, identifies expressions of hate speech that target groups and individuals on the basis of their ethnicity, faith, religion, race, gender, handicap or "different abilities", sexual orientation and "intergroup differentiations". 

Given the low public trust in the force, the new circular has been widely criticised.

A legacy of authorities determining dos and don'ts as they please partly explains the resistance, while hate speech is regulated and banned in many democratic countries.

Police officers have long complained of finding it difficult to differentiate freedom of expression and hate speech, National Police chief Gen. Badrodin Haiti has said, thus years of discussion finally led to the circular, even though hate speech is already regulated in the Criminal Code, among other things. 

The National Commission on Human Rights has hailed the circular but objected to the fact that it includes defamation and insult, which is regulated in the Criminal Code and the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law.

Cases of so-called defamation and insult have led to many citizens becoming victims, particularly under the ITE Law, which carries heavier penalties for the crimes than the Criminal Code does.

Most cases have involved complaints on mailing lists and postings on social media, leading to unclear boundaries on legal and illegal contents of expression. 

Badrodin himself has caused even more lambasting of the otherwise praiseworthy circular by saying that the police could probe what was said to be a possible case of defamation and the spreading of false news about President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's visit last Friday to the indigenous Anak Dalam tribe in Jambi. 

Given too many questionable cases of insult and defamation, dropping the categories from the new circular would lead to better focus on hate speech, which the circular's introduction says "can drive collective hatred, isolation, discrimination, violence and at the most terrifying level, ethnic slaughter or genocide of a group that is a target of hate speech".

Police leaders could do us a big favour by working hard to ensure that all police members understand how to identify, prevent and handle hate speech, rather than pounce on a new tool to impress the President, as it seems.

One person would not have been killed in Singkil if the police had done their job - which is even more crystal clear under the new circular.

It is progress enough if the police really protect all citizens as they claim. But policies and laws that justify or condone many forms of hate speech must also be changed.

* The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers seeking to promote coverage of Asian affairs.