December 2, 2022
JAKARTA – A new report by the Sweden-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) released on Wednesday warned that even nations with a “more longstanding and stable democratic system” such as Indonesia were at risk of a breakdown in democracy, joining a trend experienced by at least half of democracies around the world.
The study does not take a microscopic view of the state of democracy in every country but offers sweeping views based on examples in each region. It concluded that “democracy is receding in Asia and the Pacific, while authoritarianism solidifies”. A little more than half of the people in this region live in a democracy, while almost 85 percent of those live in one that is weak or backsliding.
Among the factors most responsible for this regional trend in recent years is the erosion of freedom of expression.
“Although erosion has taken place in all aspects of democracy, the impact on freedom of expression and media integrity is striking, with 35 percent of democracies in the region exhibiting erosion in at least one of them,” IDEA researchers stated in the report.
The results of the study track with previous reports and findings from concerned civil society groups and democracy activists, including those of Amnesty International Indonesia, which recorded 95 attacks against 297 activists and other critics of the government last year, ranging from online intimidation to physical abuse.
The report notes that since 2018, at least 15 countries in the region have approved measures that restrict freedom of expression, and that includes Indonesia.
The revision of the 2008 Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law that lawmakers tabled in 2019 falls under this category, which the IDEA report describes as measures that “target online content under the guise of fighting disinformation and protecting infrastructure against cyberattacks”.
One prominent case in 2021 saw government stalwart Luhut Pandjaitan bring defamation charges against two activists who accused several state officials of increasing the military presence in Papua to facilitate business interests.
Meanwhile, cyberattacks against journalistic institutions have continued unabated, with the worst happening in September against local news outlet Narasi. Social media accounts of 37 current and former Narasi employees were targeted in a series of coordinated attacks that Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) chairman Sasmito Madrim decried as an “assault on press freedom”.
The report recommends that governments should partner closely with civil society actors to ensure the protection of freedom of expression and limit the spread of legislation that undermines it.
Ghosts of military past
Aside from declining freedom of expression, the IDEA report also cited the region’s difficulties in keeping militaries out of politics as a sign of democratic decline.
“The military’s significant public role in the pandemic response dashed hopes that the armed forces’ retreat from the political sphere during recent periods of democratization might be permanent,” researchers stated.
In Indonesia and the Philippines, retired or senior army officers were appointed to lead their respective states’ COVID-19 task forces, rather than health experts. This suggests that both governments see the pandemic as an insurgency to quash and not a crisis that requires health reforms, according to one media outlet cited in the report.
While the military has always been present in Indonesian politics, having had two presidents affiliated with the Army, the pandemic marked an increase in its influence. In 2020, in addition to his ministerial duties, Luhut was also tasked by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to stem the rise of COVID-19 in Java and Bali. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Doni Monardo led the national COVID-19 task force until his retirement in May of last year.
As a whole, the restrictions imposed on the public during the pandemic have also resulted in an overall decline in democracy, according to IDEA.
In Indonesia, the controversial passage of the Job Creation Law, rushed through the House of Representatives in October 2020 with very little public scrutiny due to pandemic restrictions, serves as an example.
Any hope that the public activity restrictions (PPKM) regime would dampen public protests proved wrong, however, as thousands of workers and students descended on Jakarta’s streets to voice their opposition. The omnibus law, which critics claim undermined labor rights, was declared unconstitutional in 2021; the state was given two years to amend it.