Indonesia aims to outlaw insulting president, sparks uproar

If passed, critics say the law will further erode the sliding popularity of President Joko Widodo.
If passed, critics say the law will further erode the sliding popularity of President Joko Widodo. PHOTO: ST FILE

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Indonesian legislators and human rights activists criticised on Wednesday a government proposal to make insulting the president illegal, citing concern for freedom of speech in the world's third-largest democracy.

The proposal aims to revive a law from the era of former authoritarian ruler Suharto that was used to silence dissidents with jail sentences and fines.

If passed, critics say the law will further erode the sliding popularity of President Joko Widodo, who won election in 2014 promising major reforms and clean government.

The original law was struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2006, a move that was hailed as a milestone for Indonesia's young democracy.

But Widodo said he supports reviving it. "This is to protect both those who want to criticise ... and also the president as a symbol of the nation in the long term, not just me," Widodo told reporters this week.

A spokesman for the president said not everyone who spoke out would run foul of the law. "For instance, those who want to keep the government in check for the public interest will not be criminalised," said the spokesman, Teten Masduki. "But if the criticism amounts to slander, that can be charged."

Human rights activist Andreas Harsono said the proposal would be a "step backward" for freedom of expression, and risked alienating the president from his supporters, many of whom campaigned against the old version of the law. "Widodo will upset his supporters if he revives it," Harsono said.

A July opinion poll found Widodo's approval rating stood at 41 percent, down from a high of 72 percent just after he was elected.

Fadli Zon, deputy speaker of the house and a member of the opposition, said the new law would violate freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. "This could become an instrument for the government to gag those who criticise the president," he said.

The proposal was first tabled in 2012 under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. It faced public criticism at the time for being too vague in its interpretation of what constituted an insult and who would be subject to punishment and it was shelved.

The law is scheduled to be debated in parliament this month.