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Indonesia’s President agrees to pardon professor who was jailed over WhatsApp message

Indonesia's strict "safety" laws have a chilling impact on free speech.
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Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, aka Jokowi, has granted amnesty to a professor who was arrested last month for defamation under a controversial online “safety” law. The pardon came amid uproar from rights groups, who used the case as an example of how the controversial law can be used to suppress free speech.

In a WhatsApp group chat, Saiful Mahdi, a lecturer, criticized a hiring procedure used for lecturers. His comments angered some of his fellow academics, resulting in his arrest. He was charged with defamation under the 2008 electronic information and transactions (ITE) law, and imprisoned for three months.

On Tuesday, Indonesia’s chief minister Mahfud MD said that the president had granted amnesty to Saiful. The lecturer will be pardoned as soon as the parliament approves the president’s amnesty.

The case caused an outcry among human rights groups, who noted how easily the ITE law could be used to suppress free speech.

The law was passed for the purpose of policing online activity to curb “hate speech” and defamation.

Amnesty International has described the law as “deeply flawed.”

According to the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet), there were 786 cases involving the law between 2016 and 2020. 88% of those charged were imprisoned.

The government is considering revising the law. A task force has already been formed for that purpose, and to provide law enforcement with guidelines that will help implement the law more judiciously, according to Reuters.

Saiful’s lawyer, speaking to Reuters, said that his client was happy about the amnesty because, without it, his experiences could “adversely impact academic and speech freedom.”

In 2019, the president pardoned a woman who was imprisoned under the same law for recording phone calls with her employer.

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