On December 6, Indonesia’s parliament passed a criminal code that drew wide criticism for criminalizing premarital sex and cohabitation outside marriage, among other practices. 

But the code, known as KUHP, also heavily extends the government’s reach over online speech — not just in traditional media outlets, but on social media platforms. The bill sets out new or strengthened controls on a wide array of actions, from spreading fake news and Marxist-Leninist ideology to insulting the president. These provisions come on the heels of new regulations on tech companies, aimed at enforcing “takedowns” of content targeted by the Indonesian government.

Rest of World spoke to activists, online publishers, and social media users, who feared that by the time the bill goes into full effect in 2025, critical commentary would come with harsh consequences —  or that the threat of repercussion would prevent the expression of anything remotely critical at all. 

Chapter 241 of KUHP, for instance, targets government critics: “Everyone who broadcasts, shows, or attaches writing or pictures so that they are seen by the public, plays recordings so that they are heard by the public, or disseminates by means of information technology containing humiliation to the government or state institutions.” Chapter 218 targets those who challenge “the honor and dignity” of the president or vice president, except if done in “the public interest or self-defense.”

Some key terms used here, like “humiliation,” are “elastic,” or vague in meaning, said Damar Juniarto, the executive director of Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet), to Rest of World. That makes them easily manipulated, since it’s up to the government to define those terms, along with “criticism” and even “fake news.” 

The phrase “any means of information technology” means the bill could be applied by law enforcement to all kinds of criticism shared on social media, he added. “Anyone can be criminalized,” Damar said.

The Indonesian Cyber Media Association (AMSI), the country’s association for online media, shared similar concerns. Another section of the bill threatens a maximum prison sentence of two years for the spreading of “uncertain, exaggerated or … incomplete” news that could “reasonably” be suspected to lead to riots. Four years’ imprisonment could be levied on spreaders of “fake news.” “This may harm publishers,” said the secretary general of AMSI, Wahyu Dyatmika, to Rest of World. “There should not be these kinds of provisions in the country with press law,” added Dyatmika, who is also a journalist with the Tempo Media group.

There’s precedent in Indonesia’s internet law on Electronic Information and Transactions from 2008, which has already put hundreds on trial for criticizing authorities online. SAFEnet, in coalition with other civil society communities, recorded 217 cases of people being charged with defamation under the law in 2020, and 108 cases between January and March of 2021 alone. 

Muhammad Khatami, a 24-year-old former student activist, first saw evidence of KUHP through promotions by policy influencers, a common sight on Indonesian social media. As soon as the Indonesian parliament ratified the bill, in Khatami’s Instagram feed appeared a photo of well-known actress Tissa Biani, smiling and holding up her phone. Her post was captioned with an entry that described the bill, and she cautioned followers not to listen to inaccurate reporting around it, complete with a suite of slick hashtags: #SosialisasikanRKUHP (#SocializeCriminalcodedraft) and #TransparansiRKUHP (#CriminalcodedraftTransparency).

To Khatami, it was another sign of the controlled environment he increasingly sees online. “I felt disgust,” he told Rest of World

The Indonesian government’s practice of hiring influencers to support policy goals has been well-documented, though it’s unclear if Tissa was hired in this capacity, and by whom. While Tissa didn’t designate the posts as sponsored content or ads, she was part of a wave of “selebgram,” or Instagram celebrities, who created posts supporting the bill immediately after it was ratified. (Some deleted the posts after online criticism from their followers, Tissa included.) 

This criminal code comes on the heels of the Scope Electronics Systems Operator (PSE) regulation, which obliged digital platforms from PayPal to Steam to Twitter to register as a Private Scope Electronic Systems Operator (PSE) in Indonesia. Once registered, platforms would then be obliged to take down any content the government deems “unlawful” — a broad label that could apply to everything from pornography to making fun of the president. Rest of World reporting found that the companies could suffer fines of $33,000 per piece of content if it wasn’t removed within four hours. 

Twitter’s public policy representative in Indonesia, Puri Kencana Putri, declined to comment on the new criminal code, while the Indonesia E-Commerce Association said, “We are still learning the impact of the new law.”

Khatami, who often uses his Instagram and Twitter accounts to vent critical opinions of the Indonesian government, is concerned. “I believed someday I can be a victim [of someone] who is more powerful than me, to punish me,” he said.