Indonesia’s Cyber-Vigilantes on the March

With nearly 110 million people now online in Indonesia, there is growing concern about the pervasiveness of cyber-vigilantism and the threat to free expression, especially on religious matters.

For instance, Zulfikar Akbar, a journalist at the sports newspaper Topskor Daily, lost his job after using his Twitter account to criticize Ustaz Abdul Somad, a religious figure who was barred entry into Hong Kong, on Dec. 23 last year. Three days later, his workplace had received so many intimidating messages that the publication felt it could no longer keep him employed.

Another was Fiera lovita, a physician who uploaded a Facebook post in May of 2017 questioning the absence of Habib Rizeq, the leader of the fundamentalist Islamic Defenders Front, known by its Indonesian-language initials FPI, who fled the country ahead of charges of extramarital sex and saying if he was innocent, he should return to face charges. The post went viral. Three days later, she was ordered to take it down by the deputy director of the hospital where she worked and ended up being threatened on the street by white-clad figures believed to be connected to the FPI. At about the same time, another physician faced intimidation for a statement criticizing religious leaders.

These cases demonstrate the extent to which vigilantism prevails in Indonesia despite the guarantees of free expression in Article 28 F of the 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia which reads "Everyone has the right to communicate and obtain information to develop their personal and social environment, and has the right to seek, obtain, possess, store, process and convey information by using any available channel types.”

Of particular concern is a group calling itself the “Muslim Cyber Army,” 20 of whose members have been arrested for defamation, spreading false reports and racial and religious discrimination. The group, according to Future Directions International, an independent, not-for-profit strategic research institute, was formed two years ago after the government, growing concerned about Islamic terrorism, shut down several websites and social media accounts belonging to the FPI.

Future Directions called it a “loose-knit group of tech-savvy conservative Islamic activists” that operate across Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp among others, hacking “enemy” accounts and sending viruses to their communications devices, spreading news to its members and training its members with technology.

“Members and followers are not limited to specific pages, however, and are spread across various affiliated groups such as Srikandi Muslim Cyber Army, the United Muslim Cyber Army, the Legend MCA and Muslim Coming.”

What is potentially concerning, according to Future Directions, is the group’s public influence and the possibility of links between it and “certain prominent military and political figures.”

The FPI itself has long been believed to act in extrajudicial operations for police, shutting down organizations the police deem to be troublesome.

There is plenty of vigilantism in society without the need for electronic help. The country’s weak justice system encourages the tendency to take action where the law is ineffective. That particularly extends to social matters. In villages throughout Indonesia, it is hardly rare for cohabiting couples who aren’t married to be set upon by mobs, stripped naked and paraded through the streets. That happened last November to a Sumatra couple who were reportedly caught having sex.

Such attacks have too often turned violent, according to the National Violence Monitoring System, established by the World Bank with support from the Korea Trust Fund for Economic and Peace-Building Transitions, which is seeking to strengthen the capacity of Indonesia’s institutions to detect and respond to social conflict through data and analysis. According to its statistics, mob attacks by vigilantes increased by 25 percent in the seven years to 2014. \

The country’s LGBT community has borne an outsize share of trouble from such vigilantes, according to Human Rights Watch, which last November called attention to humiliation of women on suspicion of being lesbians.

In an earlier report, Human Rights Watch said the rights of Indonesian sexual and gender minorities “have come under unprecedented attack…While lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) civil society groups had endured sporadic hateful rhetoric and violent attacks over the preceding three decades, they had been able to gain a foothold and increasing recognition as part of Indonesia’s pluralistic society. And while no national laws specifically protected them against discrimination, the central government had never criminalized same-sex behavior.”

In the growing atmosphere of religious conservatism, such minorities are in danger of their lives. Two gay men were flogged in Aceh in May 2016, Indonesia’s first public caning for homosexuality, sparking a complaint by United Nations experts wrote to the Indonesian government expressing concerns about the abusive enforcement of Sharia against LGBT people in Aceh.

“Despite Indonesian leaders’ frequent touting of the country’s diversity and pluralism, many of Indonesia’s minorities remain vulnerable to harassment, intimidation, and violence, a Human Rights Watch spokesman said. “Last weekend’s detention of friends attending a birthday party is just the latest example of this. The government should condemn this vigilantism, but will Jakarta speak out?”

The three authors are Indonesian commentators on social issues