Indonesia 2020

Many health workers did not have access to adequate personal protective equipment or COVID-19 tests. The right to freedom of expression was curtailed with the issuance of a directive by the National Police criminalizing criticism of the government’s response to the pandemic. An increasing number of people were imprisoned solely for expressing their opinions or organizing peaceful protests. Unidentified parties digitally intimidated academics, students, activists, human rights defenders, social justice leaders and journalists, trying to silence their critical voices. Several journalists filed police complaints in August; investigations remained pending at year’s end. At least 35 prisoners of conscience remained imprisoned. Security forces committed human rights violations against people in Papua and West Papua, largely with impunity. The House of Representatives dropped the Sexual Violence Eradication Bill from its priority list. The LGBTI community remained under threat following misleading statements made by several public officials on grounds of “morality”.

Background

Indonesia officially recorded 22,138 COVID-19 deaths nationwide (82 per 100,000 population) at year’s end, making it the country with the third-highest fatalities rate in Asia. The pandemic and the government’s response had significant human rights consequences, particularly with regard to the rights of health workers, the right to information, labour rights and the right to freedom of expression. Indonesia failed to place the protection of human rights at the centre of its prevention, preparedness, containment and health care policies and activities.

Right to health

Health workers

At year’s end, at least 504 health workers had died either because of COVID-19 or sometimes exhaustion due to long working hours. In March the chairperson of the Indonesian Doctors Association stated that health workers treating COVID-19 patients did not have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). The slow distribution of PPE, especially in outlying regions, did not keep pace with the continued increase of COVID-19 cases. A doctor from Flores reported in April that doctors needed to wash and iron disposable surgical masks and re-use them since they had run out of stock.1

Health workers and their families had difficulties accessing COVID-19 swab tests and had to pay for them.2 They also experienced discrimination because of their occupation. The chairperson of the Indonesian Nurses Association said people feared that medical workers could transmit the virus. At least 19 health care workers were evicted from and refused entry to their boarding houses in the period from 22 March to 16 April. Unable to find alternative accommodation, some medical workers were forced to stay at the hospital where they worked.

Right to information

In March, following the government’s confirmation of the first two COVID-19 cases in the country, the Health Ministry decided against disclosing important data on COVID-19 transmission chains, such as contact tracing and the travel history of suspected cases, claiming that doing so was likely to create widespread panic and an impact on law and order.

Officials acknowledged that government reporting on the virus outbreak was inadequate. In April, the spokesperson for Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency stated that it was unable to provide accurate data as the Health Ministry’s statistics did not match the figures as reported by provincial administrations and that the Ministry’s data was incomplete.

The government was not transparent in releasing data relating to the number of health workers infected by COVID-19 and where they worked. The Indonesian Medical Association criticized the government and requested that data regarding COVID-19 patients be made available to the relevant medical authorities in order to facilitate contact tracing and treatment.

Workers’ rights

The COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on workers’ rights, through: termination of employment; threats of wage cuts and holiday allowance cuts by employers in sectors badly affected by the pandemic; and problematic physical distancing and work-from-home policies.

The President announced the need for physical distancing and work-from-home policies on 14 March, but employers in some sectors not classified as essential nevertheless required the physical presence of workers. In some cases, employers threatened to cut workers’ wages and/or their annual leave if they did not attend work. Informal workers in delivery services, garment factories and restaurants continued to work during the pandemic. The government failed to hold employers in these sectors accountable when they did not provide handwashing facilities or masks, or impose a physical distancing policy.

In October, the Parliament adopted a new jobs law (Omnibus law) that weakened protection of workers’ rights including by removing provisions relating to the maximum time limit of temporary work contracts, amending the minimum wage formula, and increasing the limit on overtime work.3

Freedom of expression

The authorities cracked down on public criticism of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On 4 April, National Police Headquarters issued Telegram Letter No. ST/1100/IV/HUK.7.1/2020, instructing the police to monitor cyberspace and to take action against “hoax spreaders” and those who insulted the President and his administration. At least 57 people were arrested on charges of spreading “false news” and insulting the President and his administration.

Unknown parties digitally intimidated academics, students, activists and journalists in attempts to instil fear and silence critical voices. The intimidation took many forms, including threats of physical violence via text messages and, in the case of students holding discussions on politically sensitive topics, intervention by university leadership.

Digital attacks also targeted alternative media groups, including the online feminist newsgroups Magdalene and Konde. The personal information of one of Magdalene’s journalists was hacked online and she was harassed by unidentified people who sent her pornographic pictures and demeaning statements about women.4 Several of those attacked and harassed filed police complaints; investigations remained pending at year’s end.

Freedoms of assembly and association

Prisoners of conscience

The authorities continued to prosecute people participating in peaceful political activities, particularly in regions with a history of pro-independence movements such as Papua and Maluku, using the Criminal Code and its makar (rebellion) provisions. At year’s end, at least 48 Papuan prisoners of conscience and 10 from Maluku were still imprisoned. They were charged with rebellion even though they had held peaceful protests and did not commit any internationally recognized criminal offence.

On 25 April, the authorities arrested seven activists from the Republic of South Maluku movement for conducting a peaceful “Benang Raja” flag-raising ceremony on the 70th anniversary of its founding. On 23 March, the military instructed every household in Maluku to raise Indonesia’s national flag.

In September 2019, seven Papuans who had been arrested in Jayapura for joining peaceful anti-racism protests in support of Papuan university students in Surabaya, East Java, were eventually released from jail in Balikpapan, where they had been moved for security reasons. On 17 June, judges at the Balikpapan District Court, East Kalimantan, convicted and sentenced them to between 10 and 11 months’ imprisonment for their involvement in anti-racism protests. When they had completed their sentences including time served, they were refused normal financial assistance from the authorities as the Attorney General’s Office claimed it had no money to pay for their return to Papua.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders and social justice leaders (mostly community leaders working on forced evictions and other land rights issues) continued to face threats, attacks, intimidation and arbitrary prosecution for their legitimate activities. Authorities frequently arrested critics as a tactic to silence them.

Between February 2019 and 21 September 2020, Amnesty International recorded that at least 201 human rights defenders and social justice leaders were victims of human rights abuses, both offline and online. They were harassed and intimidated simply for criticizing the government or discussing politically sensitive issues such as human rights violations and abuses in Papua. The online intimidation took many forms, including credential theft of WhatsApp accounts, spam calls from unidentified international numbers, and digital harassment such as intrusions during online discussions, particularly on the issue of Papua.

On 5 June, a webinar held by Amnesty International to discuss racism in Papua was disrupted by spam calls and intrusions. Robocalls from three unidentified foreign numbers bombarded three speakers during the discussion.

In August, the Endowment Fund for Education, a government-funded scholarship programme under the coordination of the Indonesian Finance Ministry, asked Veronica Koman, a human rights lawyer who was documenting human rights violations in Papua, to return scholarship money for her master’s degree studies.5 Over the previous two years she had faced harassment, intimidation and threats, including of death and rape, and was living in exile in Australia.

Land disputes involving local communities and corporations were characterized by human rights violations. In August, police in Central Kalimantan arrested six Indigenous villagers, including the social justice leader of the Laman Kinipan community, Effendi Buhing, for defending a customary forest against the expansion of PT Sawit Mandiri Lestari, a palm oil company. The police arrested them for theft but observers agreed the arrests were linked to the growing resistance against forced evictions by palm oil companies. Between January and August, at least 29 Indigenous rights defenders and social justice leaders were subjected to detention, physical violence and intimidation.

There was still no accountability for past violations against human rights defenders, including the cases of Fuad Muhammad Syafruddin (Udin), Wiji Thukul , Marsinah and the prominent human rights activist Munir Said Thalib (Munir).

Human rights violations in Papua and West Papua

Human rights groups reported unlawful killings and other serious human rights violations by security forces, primarily excessive use of force. Between February 2018 and August 2020, 47 cases of suspected unlawful killings by security forces were recorded, involving 96 victims. In 15 cases, the alleged perpetrators were police officers ; in 13 cases, they were members of the Indonesian military; and in 12 cases, members of both the police and the military were allegedly involved.

On 19 September, Yeremia Zanambani , the chief of the Indonesian Evangelical Christian Church in the district of Hitadipa, Intan Jaya, Papua, was killed. The police and military stated that an armed group was behind his death. Local activists in Papua, who were in close communication with the priest’s family, rejected this claim and alleged the military shot Yeremia during a search for members of the armed group suspected of killing two military officers.6 During the military operation, numerous local people fled their homes to nearby forests or sought refuge in the surrounding area.

Successive governments have limited international human rights observers’ access to Papua. Investigations into reports of unlawful killings by security forces in Papua were rare.7

Women’s rights

Data from the National Commission on Violence against Women indicated that, as of July, there was a 75% increase in reports of sexual violence against women during the pandemic.

There was no comprehensive legal umbrella covering all forms of sexual violence. The Indonesian Criminal Code narrowly defines sexual violence as including rape and “adultery” (in contravention of international law), and provides for limited protection of survivors. On 2 July, the House of Representatives officially dropped the Sexual Violence Eradication Bill from the priority list of the national legislation programme. This undermined the adoption of a comprehensive legal framework that can guarantee prosecution of perpetrators and offer appropriate protection to survivors of sexual violence.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people

Harassment, intimidation, attacks and discrimination against LGBTI people continued. The media reported inflammatory, inaccurate and misleading statements made by public officials on the grounds of defending the country’s public morality. Both state and non-state actors were responsible for acts of violence as well as issuing threats, intimidation and other types of harassment of LGBTI individuals.

On 1 September, police in the capital, Jakarta, raided a private gathering of men in an apartment in South Jakarta. Nine people were arrested and charged with “facilitating obscene acts” under the pornography law, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years’ imprisonment.8


  1. Indonesia: COVID-19 and its human rights impact in Indonesia (ASA 21/2238/2020)
  2. Indonesia: Unprotected, overworked, ailing Indonesian health workers face avalanche of COVID-19 cases (Press release, 11 September)
  3. Indonesia: ‘Catastrophic’ Omnibus Bill on job creation passed into law (Press release, 5 October)
  4. Indonesia: End wave of digital attacks on students, journalists and activists (ASA 21/2536/2020)
  5. Indonesia: Financial punishment against human rights defender shows no respect for freedom of expression (Press release, 14 August)
  6. Indonesia: Investigate killing of priest in Papua (Press release, 23 September)
  7. Indonesia: Civil and political rights violations in Papua and West Papua (ASA 21/2445/2020)
  8. Indonesia: Men accused of holding ‘gay party’ face 15 years in jail (Press release, 3 September)