Indonesia's democracy still on shaky ground

"Democracy in Indonesia is irreversible and a daily fact of life," President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told the World Movement for Democracy’s annual assembly, in Jakarta this month. To be sure, Indonesia’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy, which began with Suharto’s fall in 1998, has been remarkably successful. During Yudhoyono’s March visit to Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proclaimed, "we welcome you now as a member of the family of democracies . . . a nation where freedom of the press is now exercised without constraint, without restraint and without fear of repression."

Yet despite progress in promoting democracy and the rule of law, a relatively free press and abundant news outlets, there are ominous signs that the foundations of democracy are not as sturdy as Jakarta would have the world believe. On a number of occasions in recent years, anti-corruption activists, human rights defenders, journalists, consumers, and private citizens alike have been subjected to criminal investigations, and even imprisonment, merely for engaging in the kind of conduct necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic society.

Indonesians face criminal defamation charges for "intentionally harming someone’s honour or reputation", through speech or writing or "insulting" an authority or public body. As new research by Human Rights Watch reveals, these laws have been used by public officials or powerful individuals against their critics a number of times in recent years.

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