Budi Sutrisno, Jakarta – A report conducted by the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) has revealed that accusations of blasphemy are still rampant amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the report, at least 38 cases of alleged blasphemy were reported to police or other institutions across 16 provinces in the first five months of 2020. Nineteen of the cases were filed before the first COVID-19 cases were announced on March 2, and the rest were filed afterward.
"It turns out that, when it comes to [accusing people of] blasphemy, the coronavirus does not stop our society. Instead, we are getting more sensitive about things considered blasphemy," YLBHI chairwoman Asfinawati told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.
South Sulawesi accounted for 6 of the 38 reports, followed by East Java and North Maluku with 5 report each, West Java and North Sumatra with 4 each and South Kalimantan, Riau Islands and Jakarta with 2. Eight other provinces recorded 1 report each.
The reports were filed with or processed by the police, the Interfaith Communication Forum (FKUB), the Pakem team (which monitors religious beliefs) or the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI).
One case linked to the coronavirus outbreak pertains to a district head in South Sulawesi reported for blasphemy after dispersing a Friday prayer gathering, while another pertains to the donation of meals with a dog logo on the packaging in North Jakarta.
Other cases include alleged mass conversion of children, a claim to being a prophet for Muslims, a misinterpretation of religious teachings, an insult of a certain religious figure or symbol, and vandalism of a religious text.
Most of the alleged blasphemy involved the use of social media. Some of the allegations were levelled at people in their early 20s, late teens or even at people as young as 14 years of age, according to data compiled by the YLBHI.
However, the NGO noted that there seemed to be a more "progressive" handling of blasphemy cases by law enforcement officials, in which they carried out proper clarification and physiological assessments, facilitated mediation and dismissed reports in several instances.
"There appears to be an improvement toward better law enforcement by both the police and judges, although not very [prominent]," the report states.
Nevertheless, the YLBHI condemned the unclear definition of blasphemy in relevant laws, which had resulted in 28 of the 38 cases processed based on the ground that they had caused public disorder and unrest.
"The argument that there is disturbance of public order is merely from a sociological and not juridical perspective. This is a classic argument since the 2005 blasphemy case targeting the Eden [community]," it argued.
The unclear definition of blasphemy had led to lack of consideration of an alleged perpetrator's intentions, the research suggested. It also expanded the use of absurd and contradictory articles.
The number of cases has increased as people can easily report supposed blasphemy under not only Article 156a of the Criminal Code and the 1965 Blasphemy Law, but also the 2013 Mass Organization (Ormas) Law and the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law.
A case in point is that of Michael Samuel Ratulangi, who was accused of blasphemy for a Facebook post in February. He was arrested under Article 45A of the ITE Law, with police saying, "the case contained expressions of hatred that led to blasphemy".
In other cases, Article 27 of the ITE Law regarding criminal acts of defamation were used to level charges at people accused of insulting religion through social media.
Asfinawati said the group demanded that the government remove unclear and variably interpretable articles in the laws that did not meet principles of legality and could interfere with the freedom of speech, religious beliefs and other rights of expression.