Indonesian and international media groups urged lawmakers on Thursday to reject a bill revising the country’s criminal code, warning that some of the proposed changes, including a ban on insulting the president, threaten freedom of expression.
The House of Representatives (DPR) is expected to pass the bill to amend the criminal code on Sept. 24, but calls are growing for lawmakers to postpone it.
“The House of Representatives must revoke these articles if they are committed to freedom of the press,” Abdul Manan, chairman of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, told reporters on Thursday.
An article in the bill that stipulates a prison term of up to four and a half years for anyone who insults the president and vice president “is a step-back for democracy” because the Constitutional Court had removed such provisions 13 years ago, the International Federation of Journalists said in a statement.
“The decision to maintain these articles shows that the authorities are simply ignoring recommendations from key stakeholders,” IFJ said.
“We urge the authorities related with this matter to reconsider the bill and hold the plan to pass the law,” it said.
Legislators are pushing for revisions to the Criminal Code of Laws, arguing that the original dates back to the 350 years of Dutch colonial rule in the Southeast Asian country. Before 2006, the criminal code carried penalties against insulting the president, but the Constitutional Court annulled the provisions after a judicial review, saying they were no longer relevant.
Critics said other problematic provisions in the bill include those about sex outside marriage, distribution of what authorities would deem as “fake news,” contempt of court and religious blasphemy.
Justice and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly said deliberations on the bill would be finished on schedule.
“The Bill on the Criminal Code is going ahead and will be completed. We hope the government and the DPR will sort out remaining [issues],” Detik.com, a news website, quoted Laoly as saying.
“After the deliberations are completed, we will bring it to a plenary session,” he said.
Under the draft bill, consensual sex outside marriage is punishable by up to two years in prison and an unmarried couple who live together could face six months in prison. The unwed couple could be reported to the authorities and charged, but only their parents or children could file a complaint.
The bill contains 722 articles and would take effect three years after parliamentary approval. It does not include provisions on terrorism. Indonesia strengthened its 2003 anti-terrorism law in May last year when its parliament passed a bill formalizing a military role in counter-terrorism efforts.
Targeting religious minorities
In other proposed amendments, anyone who publicly incites people to leave any of the six recognized religions in Indonesia could also face up to four years in prison under the revised penal code’s provisions on religious blasphemy.
Human rights groups said the current blasphemy law had been used to target members of religious minorities in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, including Islamic sects deemed deviant.
Last year, a court in North Sumatra province sentenced a Buddhist woman of Chinese descent to 18 months in prison for committing blasphemy by complaining about noise coming from a neighborhood mosque.
The 44-year-old woman named Meiliana was found guilty of showing hostility to religion and blasphemy after she complained that the Muslim call to prayer was being played too loudly at the mosque near her house.
Meiliana has denied the charges, but angry locals threw rocks at her house and mobs burned Buddhist temples and other buildings owned by local ethnic Chinese.
In 2017, Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was sentenced to two years for blasphemy for remarks deemed insulting to Islam. He was released in February.
Conservative Muslim groups held protests against Ahok in 2016 and 2017 after an edited video posted online made it appear that he had said the Quran deceived people.
Ahok lost the Jakarta gubernatorial election to former Education Minister Anies Baswedan, who courted support of conservative Muslim groups despite his liberal credentials.
The blasphemy law was only used in eight cases in its first four decades but convictions jumped to 125 during the 10-year rule of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, according to Human Rights Watch.
Another 23 people have been sentenced since President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took office in 2014, the group said.
‘Interference in personal matters’
Under the bill, aborting a fetus of more than six weeks would be punishable by up to four years in prison, with no exceptions given to rape victims.
“There’s too much interference in personal matters of citizens,” Erasmus Napitupulu, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR), told BenarNews, referring to the proposed amendments to the criminal code.
“In my opinion the colonial character of the bill remains strong, when the revisions are supposed to bring new things to Indonesian law,” he said.
There are no specific references to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups) in the bill, despite initial fears voiced by advocacy groups that it would criminalize homosexuality.
The LGBT community has been under increased pressure in Indonesia in recent years, with rhetoric and actions of some government officials and local leaders fanning an uproar against the country’s sexual minorities.
Police have raided places frequented by gay people in recent months, briefly detaining hundreds suspected of being homosexuals.
Last year, officials in Pariaman, a coastal city in West Sumatra province, issued a municipal regulatory law that included a fine of up to 1 million rupiah (U.S. $71) for LGBT activities.
Taufiqulhadi, a member of the bill’s parliamentary working committee, told BenarNews that provisions in the draft criminal code reflected Indonesian values and were not intended to control the private activities of citizens.
He said citizens who are opposed to particular articles can file a judicial review with the Constitutional Court.
“We are a country that believes in God,” Taufiqulhadi said. “The bill is aimed at creating order in society and promoting legal awareness for all the people of Indonesia.”