Manufacturing Hatred

Punishing those who propagate radical hate-speech is not enough. Their ultimate paymasters must be named and brought to justice.

President Joko Widodo’s face is photoshopped onto a female dog. On his forehead is the communist hammer and sickle, while around his neck is an American flag. Holding him on a tight leash is Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, surrounded by corpses of women and children. Just in case you don’t get the message, Jokowi is marked “Jongos”, a derogatory term for a houseboy, while Netanyahu is labelled “Boss”.

It doesn’t make sense that Jokowi could be a pro-American communist or Israel’s bitch. But logic has nothing to do with it. It’s all about creating hatred and playing the religion card to manipulate the masses to mistrust Indonesia’s honest politicians.

The absurd image of Jokowi was one of hundreds of malignant memes posted on Facebook groups set up to support the candidacy of former general Prabowo Subianto ahead of Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election. Many of these groups were eventually shut down by Facebook for propagating hatred.

Indonesia’s cyber army of hate-speech warriors, often cloaked in conservative Islamic rhetoric, went up a gear in late 2016 to oppose then-Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama, who ended up losing his position in April 2017 and soon after was jailed for blasphemy.

A handful of people who created some of the hate-speech, slander and fake news have been rounded up over the past nine months, but their paymasters remain at large.

Two anti-Ahok agitators, Rizal Kobar and Jamran, were arrested in Jakarta in December 2016 on treason charges. In June 2017, they were each sentenced to six months and 15 days imprisonment for disseminating hate-speech on social media.

In a genuine democracy, you should be able to post just about any nonsense mocking politicians, provided you’re not inciting violence or discrimination. If public figures don’t have sufficiently thick skin to handle ridicule, they’re in the wrong jobs. The problem is when relentless campaigns of vitriolic misinformation seek to inculcate a national psyche of racism, religious intolerance and violent extremism.

In Indonesia, if you post a meme mocking someone’s race and religion, you could be arrested. But if you mastermind mass rallies to demand a Christian ethnic Chinese politician be jailed or even killed, nothing will happen, probably because you’re rich enough to be above the law.

Ropi Yatsman, 35, ran a Facebook group called Keranda (Coffin) Jokowi-Ahok and used various online aliases to spread hate-speech. He was arrested in February in West Sumatra province for uploading doctored photos of Jokowi designed to incite hatred and hostility. On July 24 he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for violating the 2008 Law on Electronic Information and Transactions. He was later linked to a fake news syndicate called Saracen, named after the European term that originally referred to people of Arabia and later to Muslims in general.

Police said Saracen charged about Rp.72 million to disseminate fake news and hate speech, and received payments to 14 bank accounts from people linked to the anti-Ahok movement. Police spokesman Setyo Wasisto said an investigation by the Financial Transaction Analysis Reporting Centre (PPATK) revealed several prominent figures had made transfers to the accounts. He refused to name them, but said they would be summoned for questioning.

Not all of the stuff published by Saracen was fake news. Its website saracennews.com features a true story headlined “Widow Certain This Calf is Her Reincarnated Husband”. Then there are articles extolling the Army’s Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad), as well as reports on polls claiming that Prabowo (himself a former Kostrad chief) will defeat Jokowi in the 2019 election.

Saracen’s media chief, Faizal Muhammad Tonong, 43, was arrested in North Jakarta on July 21, one day after uploading a meme that accused Jokowi of being pro-communist and anti-Islam. The group’s regional coordinator, Sri Rahayu Ningsih, 32, was caught on August 5 in Cianjur, West Java. On August 7, their leader, Jasriadi, 32, was arrested in Pekanbaru, Riau province.

On September 8, police detained Asma Dewi, 52, the treasurer of the Tamasya Al-Maidah Islamic group that had encouraged massive anti-Ahok protests. Police said she made anti-Chinese posts on social media and transferred Rp.75 million to Saracen. Her two older brothers are mid-ranking police officers, who were reportedly upset by her actions.

Saracen’s advisory board lists Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) lawyer Eggi Sudjana and retired general Ampi Tanudjiwa as members, but the two have denied any involvement.

After his arrest, Jasriadi said that during 2014, he noticed many Facebook accounts insulting Islam and Prabowo, so he hacked them and renamed them Allah Maha Besar (Almighty God) and Saracen. He also claimed to have hacked Thai Facebook accounts with pornographic content, and to have restored blocked accounts. Police said he received special training in how to craft hate-speech.

In July 2016, Jasriadi attended a meeting at Al Husna Mosque in North Jakarta, where he was approached to set up Saracen media for political campaigns. He denied being a part of Prabowo’s campaign team or Gerindra Party, saying he was merely a sympathizer.

The National Police’s head of Cyber Crimes, Irwan Anwar, on September 19 said Saracen was one of several units that are managed and funded by a large group, the controller of which is a politician. He declined to reveal the identity of this big boss. He said Saracen was behind online groups that supported Jakarta governor-elect Anies Baswedan and his deputy Sandiaga Uno, who were backed by Prabowo.

Gerindra legislator Sodik Mudjahid said Prabowo has many supporters from various circles, and Saracen’s actions were not on line with his vision and actions. Fellow Gerindra legislator Fadli Zon said the party has never approved of smear campaigns. He accused the government of double standards in handling hoaxes and hate speech, as no one has been punished for an online photo of Prabowo depicted as Adolf Hitler. Prabowo’s tycoon brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo condemned Saracen and amoral politics.

Jasriadi said that when saracennews.com started in 2016, it mostly copied content from legitimate news sites. He claimed he planned to recruit journalists but never got around to doing so. Police said the Saracen-related Facebook accounts had about 800,000 followers, but Jasriadi put the number at 150,000.

The template used by Saracen is nothing new. For decades, the Suharto regime falsely branded its opponents as communists in order to stigmatize and silence them. If you oppose critical thinking, truth and justice, then you simply brand the thinkers as communists and organize mobs to attack them. That’s what happened when the Jakarta office of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation was attacked over September 17-18 for holding a democracy discussion.

For now, police seem to be finally cracking down on the cyber side of dirty politics, but the toughest challenge may be in revealing the masterminds.

 

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.


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