Preventing hate speech, incitement and discrimination: the case of Indonesia

21 February 2022

Indonesia champions itself as an example of how different races, ethnicities, and religions can live together under one nation-state, yet the country has seen several significant hate speech and incitement cases. A case study by GAAMAC’s Asia Pacific Study Group gives comprehensive analysis of the hate speech phenomenon in Indonesia, including the various government and civil society responses.

First and foremost, it must be stressed that, the escalation of hate speech campaigns in Indonesia are not caused by an irreconcilable difference in ideological and/or religious belief. Although tensions did occur, they did not escalate into hate speech campaign and victims of hate speech campaigns have notably coexisted with others within society.

What did make hate speech campaigns escalate – notably in 2005-2011 against the Ahmadiyya, in 2006-2012 against the Shi’as, and in 2016-2017 against the former Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as ‘Ahok’) –  were three common enabling contexts: (a) a rise of conservative and legal-formalistic understanding of religion, (b) the existence of electoral incentives for politicians to support hate speech instigators’ rhetoric, and (c) an increased perception that the targeted community/individual constituted a threat to the socio-economic capital.

The aforementioned hate speech campaigns shared three common characteristics. First, they used a “threat to survival” narrative, in which instigators portrayed minorities as a threat to the survival of the major religious and/or cultural groups. Second, was the re-interpretation of state regulations to justify hate speech as legitimate discourse. The third characteristic that has become increasingly prominent in the past decade is the pervasive use of online platforms to spread hate speech, coinciding with the increase of social media use in the country.

The three phases of hate speech campaigns

Despite its different triggers, the case study finds that hate speech campaigns in Indonesia involve three common phases:

In the trigger phase, instigators make use of the target’s seemingly innocuous and routine activities to begin launching vilifying phrases against them. Local governments and law enforcement often fail to adequately respond or, at times, even actively ignore them – allowing them to snowball.

In the escalation phase, hate speech intensifies into at least one of three events: the transformation of hate speech to violent actions, the politicisation of hate speech by politicians, and the organisation of disparate hate speech actors into one movement.

Finally, the normalisation phase is characterized by the increased acceptance that the victims of hate speech were legitimately targeted. This phase is often characterised by the issuance of a legal ruling and/or regulation from a government body that limits the rights of the victims of hate speech.

Solutions from the government and civil society

While government measures against hate speech exist in Indonesia, their implementation is problematic because of the large number of regulatory loopholes that make them prone to misuse. The Indonesian legal system tends to blur hate speech with acts of defamation, insult, slander, spreading fake news, discrimination, blasphemy, etc. This lack of a clear definition has confused Indonesian authorities in deciding what hate speech is and how to differentiate it from other types of speech. Law enforcement and judicial institutions have also tended to act partially or discriminatively in the implementation of regulation, preferring to process cases reported by members of majority groups. Finally, the tendency to “pre-emptively” curb hate speech using the pretext of restoring public order is counterproductive as it often bridles legitimate public criticisms against government performance.

Indonesian authorities have favoured a “hard” approach on hate speech, neglecting prevention during and before the “trigger phase”. To fill this gap, the role of civil society, especially those that have actively promoted tolerance and fought against fake news is key. Their engagement has become more robust through collaboration with the private sector, particularly to provide public education to the young generation.

This article is a summary of the chapter on Indonesia in the report Preventing Hate Speech, Incitement, And Discrimination – Lessons On Promoting Tolerance And Respect For Diversity In The Asia Pacific.

Read the chapter on Indonesia

Read the full report

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