Today, ARTICLE 19 filed an amicus curiae brief in a criminal defamation case coming before the Indonesian court. The case is brought against Dr. Saiful Mahdi, from the Syiah Kuala University, for statements he made in a faculty WhatsApp group concerning his university’s hiring process. ARTICLE 19 advocates for decriminalisation of defamation and calls for a moratorium on defamation prosecutions in countries were criminal provisions remain. Criminal defamation constitutes a disproportionate limitation on the right to freedom of expression, and we call on the Indonesian court to dismiss the charges.
Dr. Mahdi is a professor of statistics at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at Syiah Kuala University (Banda Aceh campus). In February 2019, in a WhatsApp group of faculty and staff members, he voiced his concern about the university’s hiring procedure for new faculty. In particular, he criticised the process for selecting successful candidates from the civil service test to join the Faculty of Engineering and questioned the conduct of the ‘leadership ranks’ of the university. He did not name any faculty members.
Acting on a complaint by the dean of the Engineering Faculty, criminal defamation charges were brought by law enforcement against Dr. Mahdi pursuant to article 27 para 3 of the Electronic Information and Transactions Law (ITE Law). The provisions carry a maximum penalty of four years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to IDR 700 million (approximately £35,000). ARTICLE 19 has previously expressed concern that the ITE Law, which is the primary means by which the Indonesian Government regulates online content, violates international freedom of expression standards online.
In the amicus brief to the District Court of Banda Aceh, ARTICLE 19 argues that a finding of guilt of criminal defamation would run counter to Indonesia’s obligations under international human rights law, as well as Indonesian constitutional law. It highlights that there is increasing recognition worldwide that criminal defamation laws are incompatible with international standards and furthermore unnecessary to protect reputation and maintain public order. Several international and regional bodies have called for defamation law reforms and an increasing number of States have either decriminalised defamation or significantly curtailed its use, including Argentina, Mexico, Georgia, Ghana, UK, Ireland, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Togo, Burkina Faso, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Additionally, ARTICLE 19’s amicus highlights that Dr. Mahdi’s statements should not give rise to a finding of guilt because the subject matter of the impugned speech concerned an expression of opinion which is entitled to enhanced protection under international freedom of expression standards. The statements of Dr Mahdi concerned an institutional process, hence on matters of public interest, which also deserve enhanced protection due to their role in safeguarding democracy and the general public interest. Importantly, his statements did not harm the reputation of any person as they related to an institutional process.
ARTICLE 19 believes that this case could set an important precedent for freedom of expression in Indonesia and a finding against Dr. Mahdi could exert a significant chilling effect on freedom of expression to the detriment of the Indonesian public as a whole, and particularly academics. ARTICLE 19 therefore calls on the District Court of Banda Aceh to dismiss the charges and to send a strong signal within Indonesia – and around the world – that the country is committed to democracy and the protection of the right to freedom of expression.