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Indonesia's Ormas Law: A ready weapon against civil society and free speech

Students protest outside the parliament building in Jakarta, while parliament members hold a meeting to pass the mass organization bill, 2 July 2013; the words on the students' chests read,
Students protest outside the parliament building in Jakarta, while parliament members hold a meeting to pass the mass organization bill, 2 July 2013; the words on the students' chests read, "reject the mass organization bill"


The Parliament's passage of the civil organizations law (RUU Organisasi Kemasyarakatan or Ormas Law) on Tuesday 2 July 2013 represents the third significant step backwards for Indonesia as the region's champion for freedom of expression.

The law comes on the heels of the passage of the State Intelligence Law (October 2011) and the Social Conflict Law (April 2012), which have introduced important restrictions on freedom of expression and the role of journalists.

Prior to this point, SEAPA and the media freedom community looked at Indonesia as Southeast Asia's exemplar of respect and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression because of two laws: Transparency of Public Information Law (2008), on the press and public's right to access state information, and the Press Law (1999), protecting journalistic work as an important component of the free speech and access to information. With these laws, no other country under ASEAN has provided the same level of legal guarantees for freedom of information and the free press as Indonesia.

Now with the Ormas Law, the government has instituted a system of regulation for civic organizations, including classification, procedure, and approval/certification at various levels. These organizations - whether at the community, district provincial or national levels - serve as important platforms of the exercise of free speech and the dissemination of ideas in the public sphere.

Despite opposition from a broad section of civil society and criticism from UN human rights experts, the new law has retained controversial provisions, which can limit subject matters that civil organizations can tackle. For example, it explicitly prohibits challenges to the constitution and the unitary nature of the state, and conflicting with the country's official philosophical foundation, Pancasila, and other religious, cultural, moral and ethical norms.

The law also outlines details of registration requirements for organizations to follow, including minimum operational procedures and elements, and information requirements before applications can be approved or certified by government officials, or they are allowed to work with the state.

Based on these restrictions and procedure, government officials can impose sanctions to erring organizations, from sending warnings, to ordering a suspension or the revocation of permits, to termination of grants, and to requests for the dissolution of organizations.

The obligations, restrictions and procedure outlined in the law can create a number of traps against civic groups for such sanctions.

In passing the law, the Parliament invoked the government's democratic record to allay legitimate concerns raised against over the abuse of the Ormas Law against groups that are deemed to violate the scope of prohibitions and responsibilities of civic organizations under its scope.

However, such a flawed system presents itself as a potent weapon for any future local tyrant or a national autocrat to suppress critical groups and legitimate dissent.

The Indonesian government needs not only be reminded of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but also of the country's experience in ousting the New Order regime in 1998. Many lawmakers and officials were part of the reformasi movement, in which many groups worked outside state recognition, to bring about positive national transformation.

If taken with the previous missteps of the State Intelligence Law and the Social Conflict Law, the enactment of the Ormas Law shall be a sad anti-democratic legacy for the current government.

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