China is the only major nation to be able to impose strict internet control. With a strong censorship apparatus, including a reported 30,000 personnel policing the internet, China is the country with the harshest online control. Using its extensive internet control apparatus, China manages to crack down on online information deemed false or not in conformity with the country’s ideology, communism.
Stressing its desire to protect the public from the plague of fake news on social media, Indonesia’s Press Council recently announced the names of media companies listed as “verified”. It claims the verification process is aimed at creating a healthy media environment. Like it or not, such media verification has brought back dark memories of press control under former president Soeharto. The question is, can Indonesia curb the spread of fake news or false stories in this fast-growing digital media era unless it imposes strict internet control like in China?
Opposition to media verification continues to arise although it is actually not new. The Press Council says verification of media companies is stipulated in Article 15 of the 1999 Press Law, which states that the council is required to set up a data bank on press corporations. Verification is reportedly also a commitment of press communities as stated in the Palembang Charter of Feb. 9, 2010.
Elements of verification include the legality of a media corporation, the content of its news coverage, the existence of an editorial board, the company’s ability to pay its journalists properly and the availability of a journalism code of conduct.
Through such verification, the Press Council wants to ensure that a media corporation fulfils all the requirements needed to enable it to implement its full function as a free and responsible press. Verification is also seen as one way the council can maintain the credibility of Indonesia’s press, which has been impacted by irresponsible use of social media platforms.
The council believes verification will force news organizations and online publishers to apply a high standard of journalism and truthful reporting.
Yet the trauma of censorship under Soeharto’s authoritarian New Order, which never had clear guidelines, has left press organizations wary about the effectiveness of such verification in protecting the public from fake news. There is a widespread concern that such certification will become no more than censorship in a new guise. Furthermore, several parties in the media community have expressed concerns that in the face of libel threats the council may have its hands tied and may not be able to help them if their media has not been verified. The council therefore should explain to the press community its policies and measures in such cases.
At the same time, despite the ongoing verification process, fake news online continues to flourish, influencing people’s ways of thinking and attitudes.
During an event held by the Hanura Party in Bogor, West Java, on Feb. 22, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo expressed his concern about the rampant spread of false stories, hoax or fake news and hate speech via social media, which he said would divide the nation if it was left unresolved. He highlighted an excess of democracy in various forms, including the politicization of different ethnic, religious, racial and social group (SARA) sentiments.
Tight internet censorship may sound promising in stopping fake news.
With its well-combined automated and human-controlled censorship apparatus, the Chinese government has been successful in blocking and filtering online information deemed false or unverified. But for Indonesia, imposing such a strong censorship may lead to a decline in democracy and undermine respect for fundamental freedoms that the country has long fought for.
Actually, it is possible for the Indonesian authorities to take legal measures against fake news, such as libellous statements or SARA incitement, which has the potential to foment social unrest, using already available regulations.
In July 2014, the Communications and Information Ministry issued Ministerial Decree (Permen) No. 19/2014 on the handling of negative internet content. This decree mandates the establishment of a panel that must deliver recommendations to the ministry about what sites it should put on TRUST+Positif, the government’s filtering system, for blocking.
Permen 19 is an implementing regulation of the 2008 Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE) Law, which punishes anyone who intentionally and without justification spreads information aimed at inciting hatred or hostility among individuals and/ or certain social groups by means of exploiting SARA issues.
With Indonesia’s increasingly mature democracy, website blocking should be used only as a last resort as it does more harm than good in terms of respect for and fulfilment of people’s rights. A society that is enlightened is one with an ingrained alert system, where people are not easily duped by unreliable sources.