Indonesians seek justice after internet shutdown

Last week, ahead of the expected May 13th hearing, Access Now filed an amicus brief with the Jakarta Administrative Court in relation to a legal case challenging the 2019 internet shutdowns in the Papua and West Papua provinces of Indonesia. This “friend-of-the-court” brief argues that state-ordered internet shutdowns are incompatible with international law, as well as Indonesia’s Constitution and domestic law. 

In 2019, at least 33 countries shut down the internet, with a minimum of  213 incidents globally. Governments in Asia, like in the previous years, ordered the lion’s share of internet shutdowns around the world. Indonesia shut down the internet at least three times in 2019.

Civil society has pushed back. The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and Southeast Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet) filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Communication and Information of the Republic of Indonesia (Kominfo RI) and the Indonesian President to challenge these shutdowns. They argue that the government’s actions that terminated the internet violated the freedom of the press and the right to information because journalists were unable to report and inform the public about the protests. We support their arguments and their bid for justice after a series of measures violating freedom of expression and other human rights in Indonesia. 

Multiple rounds of shutdowns

The relevant government actions targeted the Papua and West Papua provinces of Indonesia. In August of 2019, according to the Human Rights Watch and media reports, a video surfaced showing Indonesian security agents using racist language in attacks on Papuan students. This incident triggered numerous protests across the country. To suppress these protests, the government used excessive force, which resulted in arrests and injuries of the protestors, as well as one person killed. The government also ordered internet shutdowns and banned journalists from accessing the protests. 

The first round of mobile internet shutdowns started with bandwidth throttling on August 19, 2019. Shortly after the deliberate internet slowdown, authorities imposed a blanket shutdown. Then, on August 21, 2019, the government proceeded with a communications blackout in Papua and West Papua that lasted until September 4, 2019. A third internet shutdown affected Wamena and other regions and lasted from September 4 until September 9, 2019. At least some of the  internet shutdowns were accompanied by mobile network disruptions, meaning that people in the region were entirely cut off as communications channels went dark. Like governments that order network disruptions typically do, the Indonesian government attempted to justify the shutdown by citing public safety. However, observers conclude that the internet shutdowns were more likely implemented to disrupt the Papuans’ ability to access critical information, freely express themselves, peacefully assemble, and reach out to their loved ones.  

Access Now files brief

We encourage courts to help prevent internet shutdowns and deliver remedy, as many judges are beginning to do, and we track lawsuits against governments and telcos who shut down the internet in our Shutdown Lawsuit Monitor (SLaM). At times, we intervene alone or with partners to draw attention to the human rights impacts of disruptions and the applicable law.

In our brief in this case, Access Now championed press freedom, arguing that internet shutdowns violate the right to free expression and access to information, which are firmly rooted in Indonesia’s Constitution and international human rights and press freedom law, as well as enshrined in international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), that Indonesia has signed and ratified. In addition, Access Now also argued that internet shutdowns, especially those that are imposed during or in retaliation for protests, are incompatible with the right to freedom of association. Finally, Access Now argued that internet shutdowns negatively impact economic and cultural rights, protected by  the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), as well as by the Indonesian Constitution. 

We hope that the court, which is expected to rule on the case within the next few weeks, will appreciate the critical importance of internet access for all Indonesian citizens, including in the Papua and West Papua regions, for the protection and enjoyment of their fundamental rights.  Regardless of the decision in this case, however, Access Now will continue its legal, policy, and advocacy interventions to challenge internet shutdowns and defend digital rights of users around the world. 

Access Now thanks the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM), Irene Poetranto from CitizenLab, Pitra Hutomo from EngageMedia, Kathleen Azali, Iben Molenkamp, as well as Jessica Fjeld, Sungjoo Ahn, and Sarah Rutherford from Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Law Clinic for their help with research, submission, translation, and editing of the brief.