People in Indonesia were appalled last month by the news of a mob burning down Buddhist temples in Tanjung Balai, a port city in North Sumatra.
A chain of messages on social media had reportedly fuelled the violence. The nature of social media, which holds the potential for slander to be perceived as facts and go viral, shows there should be more control over hate speech online.
Tanjung Balai was not a special case. Last year mobs destroyed a mosque in Papua and churches in Aceh. Police linked provocation and hate speech circulated in social media to the attacks.
Indonesian laws prohibit people from threatening or inciting hatred online. The Indonesian Criminal Code (KUHP), the Law of Electronic Information and Transaction, the Law on Race and Ethnic Discrimination Eradication and the Law of Social Conflict Handling all tackle hate speech.
In October 2015, the Indonesian Police chief issued a circular that focused on hate speech and procedures that local police should follow to handle it.
According to this circular, hate speech is identified as any actions – including defamation, provocation, incitement or circulating a hoax – conducted to provoke hatred toward individuals or groups because of their ethnicity, religion, race, gender, disability or sexual orientation.
Despite these laws, the circulation of hate speech in the Indonesian digital sphere is relatively high.
There are two possible causes of this. First, the public are not aware of the regulations that prohibit hate speech. It may also be possible that people are sure the government will ignore violations against rules that prohibit hate speech in social media.
Indeed, there are few (if any) news reports about government action against hate speech involving religion or ethnicity in online spaces. What we often hear instead are cases where the government uses the law as a draconian measure against a person expressing atheism or an absurd punishment for being tagged on Facebook.
In terms of religious and ethnic conflict, the police take action only when conflicts happen in the real world, such as the clashes in Tolikara, Aceh Singkil and Tanjung Balai. This may have built a perception in Indonesian society that online slander is acceptable.
Bandung City Mayor Ridwan Kamil, an active social media user, gave a good illustration of social media users’ bad behaviour. He said Indonesian social media users are similar to those who ride motorcycles in Indonesia: they might know how to ride, but it does not guarantee they follow the rules of the road. As a result, traffic is chaotic.
Borrowing that analogy, I believe the root of problems for the attitudes of both Indonesian bike riders and social media users is similar: weak law enforcement.
The Indonesian government has not been serious in tackling various offences. Thus, people become more daring in breaking the rules. At the end, people are not even aware they are violating particular rules as the behaviour has become common practice.
It’s urgent to act firmly
Even before the advent of social media, Indonesia experienced many religious and ethnic conflicts.
In 1998, there were anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta and surrounding cities. In 1999, Muslims and Christians engaged in bloodletting in Ambon. The same year ethnic conflict broke out between Madura migrants and indigenous Dayak in Sampit, Central Kalimantan. That was also when systematic persecution of Ahmadiyah people in Indonesia began.
These examples show that the Indonesian public is prone to provocation when it comes to issues of religion and ethnicity.
Additionally, digital literacy – the ability to critically evaluate, create, select and share digital content – remains relatively low. As a result, many people have difficulties in filtering information and differentiating fact from fiction.
The Indonesian government should take action to prevent online conflicts from spilling out in the real world. It’s important to balance freedom of speech with the rights of minority groups to be free from fear and violence.
Police should not only criminalise provocateurs after a violent conflict, but also firmly enforce the law on religious or ethnic hate speech before physical clashes occur.