Indonesia flag

The flag of the Republic of Indonesia.

By Zach Ienatsch


In 2017, Reporters Without Borders awarded the Republic of Indonesia with a score of 39.93, ranking the country 124 out of 180 nations, placing it between Qatar and Angola. This ranking is six spots higher than Indonesia’s 2016 placement, showing a small improvement in freedom of journalism. In the last few decades, freedom of expression has become more open since the end of the lengthy rule of President Suharto. Indonesians now enjoy greater freedoms than previous generations, as well as greater freedoms than their Asian neighbors to the north, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and the People’s Republic of China. However, government corruption and relatively conservative cultural pressures have plagued free speech and press in the nation for most of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Historical background

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populated country and is the most populous Muslim-majority nation. Over 13,000 islands constitute the archipelago, with more than half of the country’s population remaining solely on the island of Java. Indonesia is home to hundreds of ethnic groups and languages. The nation has embraced this cultural diversity.

Indonesia declared independence from the Netherlands in 1945, after nearly 350 years of colonial rule. As a Dutch colony, indigenous people were treated as second class citizens and placed in a lower caste than their colonizers. During World War II, the archipelago was occupied by Imperial Japan. The invading forces subjugated Indonesians to torture, sex trafficking, and human rights abuses. The Indonesian National Revolution against the Dutch began following the Proclamation of Indonesian Independence, publically read roughly two weeks before Japan surrendered to the Allies.

A unified Republic of Indonesia officially assumed control in 1950 under revolutionary Sukarno, in a period marked by nationalism, the erosion of once promising democratic ideals, and growing divisions between social groups. Following an attempted coup in 1965, the military of Indonesia led a purge of suspected communists and ethnic Chinese, killing an estimated one to three million people. This purged ended with the establishment of General Suharto, head of the Indonesian Army, as president, with support from the United States. His presidency would go on to bring three decades of political suppression and government abuses to Indonesia, which severely limited freedom of expression and the press.

Following Suharto’s rule, Indonesia began to become more democratic, evidenced by the nation’s first direct election of the president in 2004. Freedom of the press expanded greatly during this era, reigniting dissemination of ideas in the general population. Economic uncertainty and government corruption continue to stifle progress, however.

The country’s government is divided into three branches: the executive branch, led by the president who acts as both head of state and government, the legislative branch, represented by the bicameral parliament (referred to as the People’s Consultative Assembly and consists of 692 elected officials), and an independent judicial branch. The president is limited to two five-year terms. The current president, Joko Widodo, was elected in 2014. The government of Indonesia is represented by a multi-party system. The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle currently has the largest membership in the legislature and also controls the executive branch. The party represents center-left politics as well as the Indonesian philosophy of Pancasila, which are based on the five principles of the belief in the one and only God, a just and civilized humanity, a unified Indonesia, democracy, and social justice for all Indonesians.

Free Speech

Article 28E of Indonesia’s constitution states “Every person shall have the right to the freedom to associate, to assemble and to express opinions.” However, these rights are not as broad or inclusive as they might sound. The most prominent issue with free speech in Indonesia concerns religion. Blasphemy is illegal and carries a punishment of five years in prison if spoken in person and six if the Internet is used. Only adherents of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Confucianism are effectively allowed to freely practice their religion and questioning the authority of any of the six “major religions” can leave the speaker with a blasphemy charge. This is a direct contradiction to the constitution’s promise of freedom of religion and worship.

Protesters and demonstrators have a disappointing history in Indonesia concerning their right to exercise themselves freely, especially concerning protesters in the regions of Maluku and Papua in the east. Peaceful demonstrators regularly face police violence and detainment for assembling, despite the constitution’s permission to do so. Individuals suspected of rebellion can be sentenced to life in prison. Activists, even if demonstrating peacefully, can be wrongfully charged with this crime. Police corruption is widespread in Indonesia, although attempts have been made to reform law enforcement.

Indonesia is also one of the least friendly nations in East Asia for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals, a reputation it did not earn until 2015. The government has made several efforts to outlaw sodomy and extramarital sexual activity, including one piece of legislation set to be voted on as early as April 2018. The bill is supported by all 10 of Indonesia’s political parties. Despite its Muslim majority, Indonesia was relatively tolerant of LGBT individuals for much of its modern history. This wave of homophobia rose with the current tide of conservatism and religious fanaticism which permeates through the rest of Indonesian politics and government.

Most notable of state violence against LGBT individuals was the 2018 crackdown on trans women in the province of Aceh, the only province to enforce Sharia law and currently outlaw homosexuality. Religious police detained 12 transgender women, forcibly shaved their hair to make them look masculine, and then proceeded to parade them through the streets while hurling chants and insults. Aceh has also drawn criticism for publicly caning men found engaging in gay sex in the privacy of their dwellings.

Particularly on the Internet, Indonesia frequently censors online content which contains nudity or anti-Islamic rhetoric. Popular sites including Vimeo, Reddit, and Imgur have regularly been censored by the government since 2013. In 2008, the government attempted to pass its first broad set of laws concerning material on the Internet, called the ITE law. This legislation would require ISPs to block or filter content promoting or engaging in pornagraphy, gambling, incitement of violence, posting of private information, and other similar activities. The latest revisions to the law, from 2016, have been modified following public disapproval of the ITE law’s contents. However, the government still enforces the laws pretty heavily and sentences offenders to prison. Cyberbullying for example carries a penalty of four years in prison.

80 percent of Indonesian Internet traffic is to foreign sites and contents, complicating the government’s ability to stamp out material deemed unfit for the local population.

Free Press

The Indonesian constitution proclaims “Every person shall have the right to communicate and to obtain information for the purpose of the development of his/her self and social environment, and shall have the right to seek, obtain, possess, store, process and convey information by employing all available types of channels.”.

Freedom House describes Indonesia’s net press freedom as “partly free” and admits although the constitution allows for freedom of the press, both the government and private sectors attempt to obstruct the exercise of these rights. It’s not uncommon for journalists and activists to face physical intimidation or assault from authorities for attempting to carry out their work, especially in Papua. The region is exceptionally volatile because of growing separatist movements and activity. To this day, local journalists are restricted from freely traveling and reporting in the region without a permit and foreign press is banned from the region, except in special state-approved instances, despite President Widodo’s promise in 2015 to lift the ban. Most foreign journalists are swiftly deported, but some are sentenced to prison within the country’s legal system, such as two French journalists who were arrested for shooting a documentary of the separatist movement in 2014.

In relation to the Papuan separatist movements, any depiction or use of the “Morning Star” flag is explicitly banned under Article 6 of Government Regulation No.77 of 2007, along with the symbol of any other separatist movement.

Despite these restrictions on individual journalists, the presence and power of the press has greatly expanded since the end of Suharto’s rule in 1998. While still in power, Suharto’s New Order allowed more television and radio stations to operate, on the agreement they were licensed and based in the capital city of Jakarta first. Although initially these stations were only permitted to broadcast news produced by the state, licensed stations began producing unofficial news material to attract advertising revenue. The government was unable to effectively punish these illegal broadcasts because most of them were licensed to Suharto’s own associates and government agents.

Prior to 2007, articles 154 and 155 of the Indonesian Criminal Code, a vestige from Suharto’s rule, listed “public expression of feelings of hostility, hatred or contempt toward the government” as an illegal offense, including “the expression of such feelings or views through the public media”. These crimes were referred to as “sowing hate” offenses and were disproportionately enforced against activists in Papua. In 2007, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court ruled the articles were unconstitutional and violated the right to protected speech enumerated in the constitution.

Critical Comparison

Indonesia falls short of many civil liberties the majority of Americans are free to exercise. Although both countries promise their citizens the right to assemble, speak, and practice their religion freely, Indonesia doesn’t follow through with protecting these rights as well as the United States does. The United States for example, allows for freedom of religion in the First Amendment and does not restrict the practicing of any religion, not just a select few organized doctrines, nor does the United States have an official state-sponsored religion The United States also does not have blasphemy laws, as blasphemy is protected by the First Amendment.

In the United States, consenting adults are permitted to do whatever they want in the privacy of their home, enumerated in several Supreme Court cases such as Griswold v. Connecticut and Lawrence v. Texas. Indonesians living in Aceh do not have the same protections and if current legislation is passed, the rest of the population will not be allowed to publicly express themselves and conduct their own lifestyle as most Americans effectively do.

The United States definitely has issues with some journalists being intimidated into not reporting certain facts, but rarely does it lead to physical violence or arrest, unlike Indonesia where the unofficial restrictions on journalists has become a widespread issue. American journalists do not have to get clearance to travel to certain states the way Indonesia’s government restricts province access in their country.

Indonesia has five articles in the national criminal code dictating “harmful speech” between individuals, such as defamatory statements and hate speech directed at religious and ethnic groups. However, enforcement of these laws is largely unsuccessful. The United States enforces restrictions on defamatory speech but does not prevent the use of hate speech by law, made explicit in the U.S. Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio.

The Indonesian legal system has not issued opinions on the size and scope of freedom of expression to the degree the United States has. This is to be expected considering the republic has only functioned like one for a mere two decades and given a few more decades of stable democracy, the nation can expect to make the freedoms listed in the constitution a little more meaningful, provided the current wave of religious conservatism doesn’t embed itself in the nation too deeply.


Indonesia still struggles to throw off the shackles of its violent, authoritarian history. But the general trend in the country is positive and optimistic for the freedoms of speech and press. The nation has already shown slight improvement from 2016 to 2017 in regard to the degree of freedom citizens have to exercise these rights. But just as Sukarno’s revolutionary state backtracked on many of its ideals and paved the way for the devastating purge in the 1960’s and Suharto’s bloody reign, the current Indonesian political climate makes the growing bud of freedom vulnerable to a reactionary wave.



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Kingsbury, D. (2005). The politics of Indonesia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Press, W. (2010). Indonesia Media, Internet & Telecommunications Complete Profile. Petaluma: World Trade Press.

Vickers, A. (2013). A history of modern Indonesia. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Human Rights Watch “What did I do wrong?” : Papuans in Merauke face abuses by Indonesian special forces. (2009). New York.

Constitution of Indonesia. (2018).

Ben Westcott, C. (2018). Fear and horror among Indonesia’s LGBT community as gay sex ban looms. CNN.

Brutal attack against journalist Banjir Ambarita – IDN 001 / 0311 / OBS 049. (2018). Worldwide Movement for Human Rights.

Freedom of expression – Inside Indonesia. (2018). Inside Indonesia.

Trans Indonesian Women Detained, Forced To Cut Their Hair By Police. (2018). HuffPost.

This essay was last updated on April 30, 2018.

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