Focus on internet and human rights in Indonesia: Interview with Ferdiansyah Thajib

By: Alan Finlay

“Both the issues of human rights and the rights of internet expression are still in the margins of the mainstream political stage in Indonesia,” says Ferdiansyah Thajib in an interview related to a forthcoming report he wrote for the Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch 2011 Update I).

APC News: Like many Islamic countries, Indonesia shows a tension between the moral and ethical demands of Islam, and the human rights agenda. The internet provokes this tension in interesting ways in the country. Does the government try to strike a balance between these two agendas when it comes to regulating the internet?

Ferdiansyah Thajib: The current Indonesian government has somewhat been ineffective when it comes to regulating religious freedom. With and without pressures from (radical) religious campaigners happening both in the media and everyday life, the existing legal products maintain the status quo. Critics have pointed out the intolerant frameworks used by the government against other religious minorities. In some cases, like the 2006 Revised Joint Ministerial Decree on the Construction of Houses of Worship and The 2008 Joint Ministerial Guidelines for Propagation of Religion, proselytizing is banned under most circumstances. While the human rights agenda has been promoted as one of the state’s democratic tenets after 1998, reflected in the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission and The Ministry of Human Rights and Law, in reality their important roles are often downplayed by the political interests of governing powers attributed to upcoming votes, public performance etc. I also see that responses from the government to the internet as a platform that caters for various agendas has been delayed, with little anticipation and understanding of how they would regulate it before actual cases emerge. With the one and only ITE Law, critics see the need for a great deal of effort from the government to create a legal atmosphere that moves beyond short-sighted political interests to ensure that the internet will be free of biased regulations supporting the status quo.

APC News: To what extent do you think the internet is posing a  critical challenge to Islamic fundamentalism in your country?

FT: Internet cuts both ways. Sociologist Merlyna Lim in her papers (2002/2006) has aptly shown how the internet is not only opening channels for pro-democratic expressions, but also increasingly become an effective tool for radical Islamist groups to gain a foothold in the society. The internet provides a safe space for agents from both sides in promoting and critically debating “sensitive issues” and differences due to the provision of anonymity in the net architecture. On the one hand, this has enabled the general public/users to understand the arguments of both sides, and eventually helps them in making rational decisions. But this condition also leads to instances where hate speech interferes in the debates, and may sometimes even lead to violent repercussions such as what happened with a prominent Islamic liberal activist in Jakarta received mail bombs from people who disagreed with what he expressed on social media.

APC News: In your report you point out that "unity in diversity" has been a key idea underpinning the social cohesion of Indonesia for many years. However, the internet is showing that this "unity" is something that has to be constantly negotiated, and is not a given. Both progressive and reactionary voices find space online. Is this a good thing for Indonesian society as a whole? 

FT: As I mentioned, the internet increasingly provides ways to educate oneself about democracy, where one may learn to live with existing differences. Although they do not always co-exist in a congruous manner, I see this as a means to nurture respect and tolerance towards differences in order to constitute a mature society. Indonesians especially have learned from their past of living with pseudo-harmony under the hegemony of the New Order only to find out how vulnerable the situation is to corruption and violence. Factually, we are a country with more than 300 ethno-localities, more than 700 living languages, six State-recognised religions and dozens of other belief systems that have yet to get formal recognition and whathaveyous. There is simply no centralised way that could over-arch such multiplicities. It’s no longer just my imagination, but everyday negotiations and interaction by, with and for the different communities are becoming more important in order for the future of the nation to survive. It may be not ideally as smooth and convenient as we want it to be, but I see it as more viable.

APC News: You argue in your report that the solution to recognising the rights of diverse groups and opinions on the internet - including religious opinions - is to encourage a new ethics of interaction, rather than increasing control. Can you elaborate on what you mean?

FT: I am not too optimistic with how structural control  (especially by the current government) could maintain and accommodate the multiplicities forming today's society in Indonesia. It’s too big of a country and there are seas of differences to navigate. For instance, consider the waves of decentralisation that give birth to local laws dominated with counter-Constitutional policies over religious matters. The low level of political maturity among power holders both at local as well as national levels continues to unhinge democratic precepts, if not going in a whole different direction. Civil society faces many loopholes in such a political climate, and with the unprecedented level of changes brought by the media and technological development, such as purported by the internet, creating more control would risk bringing about unintentional consequences such as the narrowing space for expressions. There are too many issues at stakes here, internet awareness, communicating and respecting differences, rights for expressions, religious freedom, and the list goes on. To start off with a policy would risk not just throwing the baby out with the bath water but also throwing out the bath tub. In this so-called formation of ethics, values are assessed and reassessed through communications by all stakeholders, it is an experiment of conducts: there is no need for a fix rule that separates the rights from the wrongs for now since everything is still on trial anyway. It also requires constant collaborations, and most importantly it needs to be achieved through open and critical participation. In this way, a new common awareness might be created and expanded. At this point I believe that the effects of a common awareness work stronger than anything any policy papers could attain.

APC News: Indonesia may host the Internet Government Forum in 2013. How will this help human rights defenders in that country? 

FT: Both the issues of the human rights agenda and the rights of internet expression are still in the margins of the mainstream political stage in Indonesia. Somehow the interrelated issues often appear isolated from each other. This may relate to the fact that many human rights defenders are more engaged in abuses in the “physical” domain rather than virtual ones, and internet activists are focusing more on solving technical barriers to access and promotion of knowledge production and media literacy. That's why I see the plan to hold the Forum as an opportunity for both kinds of activist to learn together through dialogue and map out commonalities of issues. Aside from having an actual and ground-based platform to discuss rights of internet expression as human rights it would also enable the different agencies to leverage the internet rights discourse into the public sphere through strategic networking. By strategic networking I mean that groups/individuals can still work on their own ideological agenda and with their own grassroot communities – but with a collective action dimension at hand it would have a much deeper impact than working alone. 

Note: The full GISWatch 2011 Update I report will be released mid-October.