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Indonesian Tweeter Most Recent Target of Draconian Internet Law

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, February 6 2014

Screen shot of Benny Handoko's Twitter profile

After joining Twitter in 2008, former construction worker Benny Handoko amassed nearly 54,000 followers. On February 5 a South Jakarta court sentenced him to a year of probation for tweeting libelous statements about an Indonesian politician. The case, one of the first to be taken to court under the Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) Law because of a tweet, has reignited a debate about the controversial Internet law, which has been in place since 2009.

On December 7, 2012 Handoko tweeted that Muhammad Misbakun had stolen money from Bank Century, a now-defunct institution at the heart of a 2008 government scandal. The allegation set off a tweet war with Misbakun that drew attention from the Twitterverse and elevated Handoko to the level of minor Twitter celebrity.

In fact, in 2010, Misbakun had been sentenced for a related charge—forging documents to get a Bank Century loan—and had subsequently lost his position in the House of Representatives.

The conviction was overturned in August 2012, and Misbakun successfully argued the tweet in December was libelous.

More than a dozen lawyers took Handoko's case pro bono because of the consequence it could have on millions of Indonesian tweeters.

“This is the era in Indonesia where people have a courage to express their opinion, so we don’t want this freedom taken away,” lawyer Febi Yonesta said.

As the trial came to a close, Handoko stood by his tweet.

“I didn’t regret my tweet because I think that’s part of my participation as a citizen in this democratic country,” he said. “Part of democracy is the freedom of speech and freedom to criticize the public figures.”

Misbakun said the tweet was outside of the domain of democratic freedoms:

“The ruling is proof that someone used Twitter as a medium to defame another’s good reputation with a libelous tweet… the content was incorrect, full of prejudice and hatred and not based on facts,” he said.

“As a democratic country, Indonesia in the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression for all citizens. But please remember that that freedom does not come without regulation: there are rights for other citizens whose dignity and reputation should be maintained.”

Critics of the ruling and of the draconian Internet law it was based on say the law conflicts with Indonesia's constitutional promise of freedom of speech online and off.

Tech in Asia highlighted some other suspicious uses of the Internet law to stifle speech, including charging the author of an article about corruption in South Nias, North Sumatra, with defamation.

In 2012, the capital city of Jakarta was named the most active city on Twitter in the world, and Indonesia rang in at fifth most active nation. Of the 74.6 million Indonesian Internet users, 19 percent have a Twitter account, the second highest Twitter penetration rate in the world (beat out only by Saudi Arabia, which boasts 33 percent penetration, but way ahead of the United States which has 11 percent).

Twitter is so influential in Indonesia that users with 2,000 followers or more can pull in $21 per tweet for advertising.

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