Rights groups expose rising ‘repression’ of academics, students

Moeflich Hasbullah, a senior lecturer at State Islamic University Bandung, is rarely seen on campus. Nor has he been on the list of lecturers teaching classes since Fachrul Razi, Indonesia’s then religious affairs minister, signed a ‘letter of punishment’ on 16 April 2020 over an article by Hasbullah published on Facebook.

In the article he accused the country’s vice-president, Ma’ruf Amin, of being incompetent.

“Critics are seen as enemies now and criticism is regarded an attack. This is not healthy. Those in power ignore public sentiment and logic to hang on to power. This should be stopped,” Hasbullah told University World News.

He is not the only scholar to be punished for speaking out.

In May 2022 the Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom (KIKA), a national coalition of researchers and students concerned about human rights and academic freedom, together with United States-based Scholars at Risk (SAR), highlighted “a pattern of repression targeting outspoken scholars and students” in Indonesia, in a joint submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of Indonesia.

The current review by the United Nations Human Rights Council is taking place this year, culminating with a working group assessment scheduled for November.

The joint KIKA-SAR submission highlights a number of cases since March 2017 of “broad pressures and targeted actions by state and university actors that punish and silence dissent, inquiry, and academic expression”.

Scholars have been subjected to criminal and civil legal actions, including under the controversial Information and Electronic Transaction Law, for being critical of the government, offering expertise in legal proceedings, and speaking about research findings in public settings, KIKA and SAR said in a statement.

In October 2017, during judiciary review proceedings on the disbanding of the banned Islamic organisation Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, Hasbullah provided an expert opinion which some regarded as supporting the organisation.

For that ‘sin’, he was summoned by the general inspectorate of the Religious Affairs Ministry and subjected to a four-hour interrogation in January 2020.

“It was extremely tiring. The same question was asked again and again. They were not seeking an answer. They were trying to make me distressed. It’s psychological terror,” Hasbullah recalled.

“I have been deprived of my academic rights for two-and-a-half years now. I cannot go to class to give my lectures. I don’t have a chair in the faculty room; and everybody seems to avoid talking to me,” he said.

He was also deprived of a number of allowances related to his post and only receives a government employee’s basic salary, “which is hardly enough to make ends meet,” he said.

In March 2022, after two years, the sanction came to an end and Hasbullah’s academic rights were restored. But just a few days later he was informed that the punishment had been extended for another undecided term.

A ministry official informed Hasbullah the extension was due to a Facebook post Hasbullah had written criticising the ministry’s new halal logo, which indicates that foods are permissible under Islamic standards.

Hasbullah wrote: “The Religious Affairs Ministry, which often makes a noise in public, suddenly changed the halal logo to a design that is seen as controversial.”

Suteki (one name), a senior law lecturer at Diponegoro University in Central Java, is another scholar who delivered an opinion at the Hizbut Tahrir judicial court proceeding. He was stripped of his professorship and suspended from his position at the university for going against the state ideology Pancasila – even though Suteki had been a lecturer on Pancasila for 25 years.

Students expelled after protests

According to KIKA and SAR, students frequently faced arrest and police violence for protesting against injustices and decrying corruption, as well as facing university disciplinary actions for raising apparently controversial questions and ideas – incidents that raise serious concerns over students’ academic freedom and free expression rights.

In mid-July last year National University in Jakarta expelled a number of students for staging rallies against tuition fee increases.

Abia Indou, one of the expelled students, noted that freedom of expression is protected by law. “Expressing our opinion and what we want is not a criminal act,” he told a local media on 6 August 2021.

Security officials also dispersed a student discussion on the latest political situation in Papua, Indonesia’s eastern province bordering on Papua New Guinea, where student unrest has erupted in recent years over the expiry of the region’s semi-autonomous status, with pro-independence groups demanding an independence referendum.

The discussion was held by Surabaya Polytechnic’s Teropong Student Press Institution, a student media organisation.

“We were studying the Papua issue as an academic discourse; what’s wrong with that?” said Fahmi Naufala Mumtaz, head of Teropong. “It was an intellectual exercise on the very issue we face as a nation, but we were treated like a bunch of criminals. Why can’t we hold a discussion on our campus?” he said.

KIKA coordinator, Herlambang P Wiratraman of Gadjah Mada University’s faculty of law, called on the government to respect freedom of opinion, not undermine it. “Students are members of the academic community who have the right to have an opinion and express it,” he said in a written statement, adding: “Academic freedom is guaranteed by the constitution.”

He said academic freedom is under pressure and this has been a cause for concern since 2015.

Information and Electronic Transaction Law

On 22 April the Banda Aceh State Court sentenced Saiful Mahdi, a senior lecturer at Syiah Kuala University, to three months in prison and fined him IDR10 million (around US$2,000 at the time) for violating UU ITE – the Indonesian acronym for the Information and Electronic Transaction Law.

He had criticised the university’s hiring practices in a private WhatsApp group chat used by lecturers. The dean of the engineering faculty filed a criminal complaint.

Mahdi appealed in vain and served roughly half of his prison sentence before Indonesia’s House of Representatives granted him amnesty.

Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said UU ITE – which came into effect in 2008 under then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – has succeeded in criminalising critics and the political opposition.

UU ITE was initially intended to protect consumers’ electronic transactions. “In practice, the government and law enforcement officials have abused the law to silence political dissidents,” he told University World News.

According to Usman, abuse of UU ITE has increased under current President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi.

According to data from the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet) and Amnesty International, the number of incidents involving the law surged from 74 in the Yudhoyono era (2009 to 2014) to 233 cases during Jokowi’s first term (2014 to 2019).

Unpublished Amnesty International data found that 241 individuals were criminalised for criticising members of the Jokowi administration during the first term of his presidency. Some 82 of these were accused of hate speech and insulting the president.

Around 65 of the 82 cases involved insults against Jokowi on social media; the others were speeches and statement of protests. Most of the social media cases were brought to light through police monitoring of cyber activities.

Decline in civil liberties, academic freedom

KIKA and SAR said declines in academic freedom – for example shown by the Academic Freedom Index developed by the Global Public Policy Institute, the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, the V Dem Institute and SAR, and incidents reported in their submission to the UN – “raise serious concerns over Indonesia’s higher education future”.

In their submission, KIKA and SAR called for the UU ITE and other laws to be revised, “to conform to national and international legal standards and obligations relating to academic freedom and freedom of expression”.

Usman said current plans to revise the criminal code to re-include provisions on insulting the president will give the authorities even more tools to silence peaceful and valid criticism and will pose a threat to whatever free speech rights Indonesians have left.