24 February, 2018
While many Indonesians watch for possible changes in the nation's criminal code, Indonesia's House of Representatives has quietly passed changes to another law.
The legislation is the revised Law on Representative Assemblies, also known as the MD3 law.
Critics say the new measures will limit criticism of Indonesian politicians. They say it also will make lawmakers less likely to take responsibility for their actions.
Under the new rules, representatives in parliament are permitted to bring charges against people who "undermine its honor or that of its members." In addition, investigations into members of parliament must be approved by the House Ethics Council.
Critics say a target of the new legislation will likely be Indonesia's anti-corruption commission, or the KPK.
Groups like Indonesia Corruption Watch and the Association for Elections and Democracy have launched an online campaign to fight the measures. The campaign has gathered more than 170,000 signatures. But the amendments can likely only be overturned by a Constitutional Court ruling.
Eight political parties supported the amendments. One of them is the Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDIP, of Indonesian President Joko Widodo. For months, PDIP members have been calling for MD3 to be passed.
The United Development Party and the National Democratic Party protested the legislation, but they were outvoted.
Andreas Harsono is a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Jakarta. He said, "Indonesia's parliament is one of the least trusted state institutions. It does not help that they passed such a repressive law. It's going to create more and more problems in Indonesia."
Late reaction to the law
Ian Wilson teaches at Murdoch University in Australia. He says debate over the proposed criminal code changes may have helped direct public attention away from the anti-democratic effect of the MD3 amendments.
Indonesian lawmakers are considering a proposal to criminalize sexual acts between homosexuals. The proposed changes also would criminalize sex outside of marriage.
"It's safe to assume the timing was at least partially intentional," Wilson said. The most divisive parts of the MD3 law are also relatively well ‘hidden' within the legislation. "It's a fairly well practiced stratagem in Indonesia," he added.
Last week, the Forum on Law and Constitutional Studies asked the Constitutional Court to consider the MD3 Law. The group said that its requirements, like ordering citizens to appear by force, are not in line with the Indonesian constitution.
Yohanes Sulaiman is a defense expert at General Achmad Yani University. He said, "The main way to oppose this measure is through the Constitutional Court. The other way [to resist], which is more difficult, would be for citizens to organize, and keep getting arrested. If they keep resisting, they can see how far Parliament is willing to push enforcement of the law."
Legal protection from criticism
"Most politicians [around the world] know that they should have thick skin. Not in Jakarta," said Harsono. In recent years, many Indonesians have faced legal troubles after criticizing politicians on social media.
"The House is just a bunch of people who are really proud and sure of themselves," said Sulaiman. "Of course, this will be a way for them to attack their critics."
He added that the House has been concerned over increased pressure from the KPK. Last year, work by the anti-corruption group led to the detention of House Speaker Setya Novanto.
The MD3 law can be seen as an attempt by the House to strengthen its power while public opinion of it is very low.
Wilson said the MD3 law is unusual because it gives legislators powers similar to, or even greater than, that of the court system.
Wilson said the law will increase people's opinion that parliament is "a self-serving institution."
He suggested that hurting public trust in the parliamentary system in this way might even increase the appeal of other parties, including Islamists.
Indonesian journalists and the media also have expressed shock over the amendments. These groups say the legislation will reduce press freedoms.
Abdul Manan is head of the Alliance of Independent Journalists. He warned that the law could become a tool to limit freedoms.
He said, "The subjective nature of the wording means that journalists can easily be ensnared for doing their job, and the law can become another tool with which to suppress...the press."
I'm Jonathan Evans.
Krithika Varagur reported this story for VOANews. George Grow adapted the report for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.
Words in This Story
code – n. a system of rules
undermine – v. to weaken or wash away
online – adj. involving a computer or computer system
institution – n. an established organization
stratagem – n. a trick designed to fool the enemy
assume – v. to accept as true
intentional – adj. planned; done by design
bunch – n. group
proud – adj. very pleased with who you are or what you have done
ensnare – v. to catch or take in
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