Indonesia makes criticising politicians a crime

JAKARTA Indonesians could be jailed for criticising national politicians under a law that came into force yesterday, in what critics slammed as a major step back in democracy.

The vaguely worded Bill passed by the 560-member House last month and has just become official, over the objections of President Joko Widodo who refused to sign off on the controversial legislation.

He does not have veto power over the Bill, though it can be challenged at the Constitutional Court.

The so-called MD3 law opens the door to pressing charges against anyone who "disrespects Parliament or its members", but it does not set out possible minimum or maximum jail terms.

Indonesia is the third biggest democracy globally behind India and the United States.

Protesters across the country who blasted the Bill could potentially see themselves jailed for such demonstrations in the future, critics said.

"How does the law define disrespect?" said Mr Sebastian Salang from Indonesian Parliament Watchdog. "It is not clearly explained and could be loosely interpreted as long as it fits the lawmakers' interest to silence critics."

Hundreds of protesters staged a rally outside the Constitutional Court in Jakarta yesterday, calling on it to revoke the legislation.

A spokesman for the court said it had received three petitions challenging the law, but it could take months before it makes a decision.

Any investigation of a parliamentarian would have to be approved by the House Ethics Council under the new law, which could block probes by Indonesia's Corruption Eradication Commission.

Some observers said the new law would criminalise criticism of the endemic corruption and poor performance among some members of Indonesia's political system. At least eight lawmakers have been arrested for graft in recent years.

There have been growing concerns about freedom of speech and human rights during Mr Joko's tenure.

Indonesia is pushing to clamp down on gay and pre-marital sex as part of a sweeping criminal law overhaul, while the government has used Internet legislation to arrest people accused of defaming the president and other high-ranking officials online. - AFP