Monday, August 24, 2009

State secrecy bill: A threat to Indonesian democracy

The government and the House of Representatives (DPR) are committed to passing the state secrecy bill this month. This is bad news because the bill, if passed, could be draconian, inhibiting people's right to information and fertilizing a corrupt regime. The law will be a serious threat to democracy and, at the same time, empower political authoritarianism in this country.

Historically, the first draft of the state secrecy bill was initiated in 1994 when Soeharto's regime was still in power. It was a part of Soeharto's scenario to monopolize and control public information. So the legalizing of such a bill is no longer relevant today. Our reform movement that was built on freedom of information, transparency and people's political participation should behind the basic spirit of any rule, including state secrecy issues.

Regulating state secrecy is accepted, in democratic countries too, by putting national security and people's safety as the main goal. For this purpose, a state secrecy bill must avoid the tendency to limit individual rights, have accountability mechanisms and be under public control. These expectations are not contained in this draft bill; it gives power to the state and criminalizes the people.

First, in regard to the definition of state secrecy: "State secrecy is information, a thing, and/or activity which has been officially approved by the President, and must be kept secret and protected through standard managerial procedures, which if
known by unauthorized person/persons can endanger the sovereignty, wholeness, and safety of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI) and/or can disturb the function of the state's official role, national resources, general order and/or disturb the implementation of the duties and role of state institutions". This definition is too broad and too general.

Second, the kind of information categorized as secret is too wide, such as information on national defense, the military, intelligence and the national economy. It is against the spirit of the law on the openness of public information.
Third, the President is given too much power to determine the definition of state secrecy.

The punishments, a heavy fine of Rp 1 billion (US$100,000), prison sentences, and even the death penalty, show that the law will be used to inhibit people's right to information and, at the same time, make the state more powerful. A regime of secrecy impedes people's opportunity to participate in the public policy making process. Although receiving strong opposition from pro-democratic groups, this draft bill will almost certainly be legalized this year.

If so, consolidation of the civil society movement is urgently needed. So far, advocacy against the draft bill has been done only by limited groups, specifically by NGOs activists, member of the press and intellectuals. And it is being done sporadically, so it is failing to get support from a wide public.

In this case, we can probably learn from the English experience. When the government legalized the Official Secrets Act in 1911, many civil society groups, led by activists and media workers, were against the law. They campaigned against the detrimental effects of state secrecy on civil liberties, democracy and human rights. At the same time, they promoted the importance of freedom of information for public participation and control over the state.

The bringing to court of two senior English state officials made their movement even stronger.

First, the Sarah Tortilla case. A senior official at the foreign ministry, she was accused of disclosing secret information about the government's plan to eradicate the mass protests at a ballistic missile site.

Second, the Clive Ponting case. A senior official at the defense ministry, Ponting was accused of disclosing that a minister had given false information about the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War.

The two cases became a great public arena to fight against the Official Secrets Act and to promote the freedom of information issue. After a long process, the pressure finally got a serious response from the English government, the passing of the Freedom of Information Act in 2000.

The government and specifically Commission I of the House of Representatives must appreciate and be responsive to people's criticism of this draft bill. This is the time for Commission I to boost the implementation of the law on the openness of public information, not to create a new law that will be against the spirit of transparency, democracy and human rights. Without strong public support, the forcing of the state secrecy draft bill into law will cause their legitimacy over it to be negligible.

Romanus Ndau Lendong , lecturer at Bina Nusantara University Jakarta

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