Dangerous Digital Attack
HACKING mobile phones, social media accounts and access to other digital services now is apparently the new way to restrict freedom of opinion during the second term of President Joko Widodo.
The intensity of disruption towards those who are critical of the government has increased recently, indicating a systemic endeavor to muzzle those who disagree with the government.
In September 2019, the mobile phones of a number of activists in Jakarta were hacked to disrupt the coordination between people planning to organize a demonstration against the weakening of the Corruption Eradication Commission. Eight months later, the cell phones of the committee and speakers of a discussion at Gadjah Mada University on the legal aspects of impeachment were also hacked. As well as being flooded with intimidatory messages, their phones were used to order large amounts of food from an online application. Students in Lampung who organized a discussion on racism in Papua at the end of June had the same experience.
Without sufficient data, it is not easy to accuse the government of being behind these muzzling actions—although there are indications of it. In all the incidents of hacking, for example, there were efforts to intimidate, criminalize and monitor by those claiming to be from the authorities or linked to them.
The government should intervene and not allow these kinds of disturbances to continue. The Constitution clearly states that the state is obliged to protect its citizens—whether they support the government or criticize it.
Unfortunately, so far, the government seems to have washed its hands. Instead of condemning intimidation, a number of government officials have asked victims to ‘stop whining’. This statement that seems to belittle the effect of the digital attack in this online era has been the subject of much public discussion shortly after the start of this intimidation. While appearing to be to sympathize with the victims, in fact they are kicking them while they are down.
The reason is simple. Condemning intimidation and telling people not to be afraid of intimidation are two different things. Refusing to do the first while advocating the second could be perceived as avoiding responsibility, and also ignoring the potential of a much larger impact that could ensue. In other words, when President Jokowi does not immediately condemn this intimidation, but those around him ask the victims not to be afraid, the president’s stance itself is a form of violence towards the victims.
Comparing intimidation during the New Order and now is also not appropriate. Those who are proud of having opposed Suharto, but who allow intimidation to continue in the Jokowi era are hypocrites. The opinion of a public official that this intimidation can be carried out by certain officials in the interests of political competition between other officials is no less ridiculous. And if this is indeed true, the ability of the President to manage conflict within the government is open to question.
Matters have become worse because the law enforcement authorities give the impression of being unwilling to continue with the investigation into the hacking of civil activists. None of the victims’ complaints have been followed up or resulted in the naming of suspects. It is as if the police are powerless to discover the mysterious people behind these cowardly efforts to silence critical voices.
President Jokowi should realize the importance of civil freedoms in a democracy. Freedoms are not an add-on accessory, but are democracy itself. It is not simply the people’s right to be heard, but also the need for the state to be ‘put back on track’.
Public freedom assumes that there is something missing in state policy—even if this policy is drawn up jointly and with the involvement of democratic institutions. Restricting public freedom is an overreaction, as if all government policy is already perfect such that there is no need for criticism.
Closing eyes towards hacking, intimidation and muzzling is a combination of cowardice and anti-democracy. Anonymous operations to hack and intimidate mean that the perpetrators are unknown. Therefore, the president should order the police to track down and find the people responsible. The communication and informatics ministry can ask cellular telephone operators to trace the identity of the perpetrators.
Allowing this intimidation to go unsolved will only strengthen the conviction of the people that the government knows and is secretly sponsoring this contemptible operation.