Verdict in Ahok blasphemy trial likely to put Indonesia’s democracy in the dock

Tens of thousands take part in a prayer at Jakarta’s National Monument during the December 2 rally against Ahok. Photo: Dewi Nurcahyani Security forces stand in the rain during the December 2 rally. Photo: Dewi Nurcahyani

A man wearing Indonesian flag colours and Islamic symbols prays at an anti-Ahok rally. Photo: Dewi Nurcahyani

Female protesters against Ahok gather at the national monument in Jakarta. Photo: Dewi Nurcahyani

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, centre, is photographed as he joins the demonstrators on December 2. Photo: Dewi Nurcahyani

Demonstrators pray in the rain at the December 2 rally against Ahok. Photo: Dewi Nurcahyani

Jakarta: On December 2, students at a junior high school in Purbalingga, Central Java, were asked this question in their multiple-choice history test: “What is the name of the current gubernatorial candidate who insulted the Koran?”

The “correct” answer was d) Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known as Ahok, the embattled governor of Jakarta whose blasphemy trial for allegedly insulting Islam begins on Tuesday, December 13.

The right of individuals to be considered innocent until proven guilty is enshrined in Indonesian law and the teacher was forced to apologise after the Muhammadiyah (the second-largest Islamic civil organisation in Indonesia) schools board learned of the question.

But it illustrates what many commentators fear: that Ahok’s conviction (he faces a maximum five-year jail sentence) is a foregone conclusion.

Police have confirmed that maximum security measures will be in place during the trial, after three massive rallies spearheaded by Islamic hardliners, one of which ended in violence, called for Ahok to be jailed.

But there are real fears Indonesia could become what Tempo magazine dubbed a “mobocracy”.

The respected magazine, banned under the Suharto regime as a threat to national stability, wrote in a rousing editorial: “A legal system that bows to pressure from the masses would turn Indonesia into a mobocracy …  Such a state of affairs, [Aristotle] declared, is nothing short of anarchy.”

More worrying than the fragile state of the rule of law in Indonesia, the magazine says, is the likelihood of the Ahok case becoming a precedent, with anyone being indicted because of mass pressure: “Nobody in their right mind would allow this to happen.”

The most recent rally on December 2 was attended by about 500,000 protesters, some carrying dramatic banners dripping with painted blood that demanded Ahok be jailed.

The controversial governor – the first openly ethnic Chinese Christian to occupy the role – opened a Pandora’s box when he allegedly provocatively told voters they had been deceived by his opponents citing verse 51 from the fifth sura or chapter of the Koran, al-Ma’ida.

Some interpret this as prohibiting Muslims from living under the leadership of a non-Muslim, although others say the scripture should be understood in its context – a time of war – and not interpreted literally.

Radical Islamic organisations have long opposed Ahok because they refuse to be led by a kafir (non-Muslim) but he proved stubbornly popular with his policies on reducing traffic congestion, flood mitigation, bureaucracy reform and free healthcare, appealing to middle-class Jakartans.

After inheriting the role of governor when his boss and political patron, Joko Widodo, was elected Indonesia’s president in 2014, Ahok looked set to win in his own right in the gubernatorial elections next February.

His opponents, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s son Agus – whom a Jakarta Post columnist snidely suggested was being marketed largely on the “handsome factor” – and former education minister Anies Baswedan, were trailing in the polls.

But then Ahok’s inflammatory comments gave those who opposed him the ammunition they were looking for and profoundly changed the political landscape.

After a November rally calling for his imprisonment turned ugly, police declared Ahok a suspect, whilst admitting expert witnesses and investigators were divided over whether his comments were in fact blasphemous.

The move was widely interpreted as an attempt to appease the masses, with President Joko sufficiently alarmed about the civil unrest to cancel a state visit to Australia and commence a “political safari” of party and state institution leaders urging calm.

But the mob was not satisfied and another political rally – the biggest demonstration in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto – went ahead on December 2 demanding that Ahok be put behind bars.

The national police chief, General Tito Karnavian, appeared to play into their hands telling the cheering crowd: “We have done the maximum. Imagine, several times he was investigated by the KPK [Corruption Eradication Commission], but [Ahok] wasn’t able to be named a suspect. Handled by the police, he can be named a suspect.”

“In Ahok’s case, by demanding that the police have been too slow, Islamists put pressure on the police to hasten the process,” Dr Melissa Crouch, an expert on Indonesia’s blasphemy laws from the University of New South Wales, writes in

“By demanding that the Attorney-General arrest Ahok, they are already presuming charges will be laid. By a show of force in the capital, Islamists issue an implicit threat to the judiciary who may hear the case – we will mob your courtroom next.

“So much for a fair and impartial hearing.”

At the eleventh hour President Joko made the abrupt and controversial decision to join the prayers at the December 2 rally alongside the radical Islam Defenders Front and then address the crowd.

This was applauded as a canny tactical win by many, although others argued it legitimised political extremists.

To an extent he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t – his decision not to meet with protesters at the earlier November rally served to inflame tensions.

“[Joko] demonstrated considerable courage in rising to stand before a giant, largely hostile crowd,” analyst Kevin O’Rourke wrote on the Reformasi website.

“Nevertheless, [Joko]’s actions do nothing to aid his former running mate and political ally, Purnama [Ahok].

Ahok has never been afraid of ruffling feathers. He is loathed as much as he is loved, with his policy of evicting slum dwellers angering the urban poor and his plans for the reclamation of Jakarta Bay attacked by environmentalists.

His political rivals have successfully exploited anger over the alleged blasphemy comments to undermine both Ahok and his ally, President Joko. Ahok is now behind the other gubernatorial candidates in some polls.

There is also little doubt racism is at play. Only around 1 to 4 per cent of Indonesia’s 250 million people are ethnic Chinese, but their economic success has caused resentment to bubble away for centuries. Ahok has been described as both a “Chinese bastard” and “the Chinese Infidel”.

“Anti-Chinese sentiment has been growing during Jokowi’s presidency as unprecedented  Chinese investment pours into the country,” writes Associate Professor Greg Fealy from the Australian National University.

He writes that it is now difficult to imagine that Ahok can avoid being found guilty because the government cannot afford for it to be otherwise, given Ahok has become so reviled a figure in the Muslim community.

“Over the past decade Indonesian democracy has been regressing on numerous fronts, including religious freedom,”  Professor Fealy says.

“The Ahok case and mass mobilisation that has surrounded it represents yet another reversal. The events of the past two months give a hollow ring to Indonesia’s claim to being a moderate Muslim democracy.”

VCE 2016: Albert Park’s inaugural Year 12s are first class

Albert Park College inaugral Year 12 students (left to right) Nicky Tzouvanellis , Jasper Blake, Campbell Rider, Chelsea Saw and Katie Lewis. Photo: Joe Armao, Fairfax Media.Campbell Rider is one of thousands of students in the public school system who watched on, as news of the VCE results achieved by Victoria’ top private schools rolled in.

The 18-year-old student is one of about 150 students who were the first to graduate from Albert Park College, which opened in 2011.

Enrolling in the fledgling school in Year 7 was a “risk”, he admits.

But Campbell has finished school with an ATAR of 99.2 and is among 20 per cent of his year level that achieved an ATAR over 90 – the top 10 per cent in the state.

The school’s median subject score was 31 and the dux ranked 99.6 – their results rivalled some of the high performing private schools.

Campbell said the stellar grades at the new government school set an important precedent for the rest of the sector.

“No one would leave this school without a sense that public education is something we need to stand up for because this [the school’s VCE results] proves that … government schools should be supported and protected,” he said.

“Albert Park College shouldn’t be the exception, it should be the benchmark … all these articles coming out about the elite private schools or select-entry schools which get these exceptional results, well, of course they do, no one is surprised by that.” .

There is plenty to learn from Albert Park College, a zoned school that is bursting at the seams, taking students from Port Melbourne, South Melbourne, Middle Park and St Kilda West. In five years it has grown from 150 to 1100 students, and has 430 students applying to enrol next year, despite only having room for 230.

Steven Cook, principal of the school, which opened a new campus on Bay Street this year for year 9 students, said there has been a steady year-on-year increase in demand of about 100 enrolments.

When the school was founded, it was one of the first to see teachers and students shift their curriculum online and adopt a “Mac only” approach, said Mr Cook, who introduced iPads for students in 2011, soon after the 2010 release.

“iPads seem mainstream now, but at the time it was quite radical,” he said.

The school, which offers two SEAL classrooms in each year level, has prioritised arts and creativity, said Mr Cook, by promoting subjects such as philosophy, sociology, music (a third of the students play an instrument), dance and performing arts throughout secondary.

A highlight for many students is the “Da Vinci Project” – a program for year 9 students wherein they tackle environmental issues over the course of the year and come up with solutions to the global problem.

Mr Cook said the graduating class were the guinea pigs for these new school initiatives.

“They were our first group, everything we tried was a new experience for them so to achieve the results they have speaks to their strength of character.”

Education Minister James Merlino also promised in October to expand the site to accommodate another five classrooms.

Don Dale detention royal commission: Dylan Voller evidence vindicates PM’s decision

Commissioners Mick Gooda and Margaret White during a tour of Don Dale. Photo: Elise Derwin Dylan Voller at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. Photo: ABC Four Corners

The first hour of gripping testimony alone by Dylan Voller vindicated Malcolm Turnbull’s snap decision to call the child detention royal commission and put a human face to a national scandal.

In clear, succinct and mostly detached responses, the 19-year-old has painted a horrid picture of institutionalised cruelty in a system hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with those supposedly in its care.

It is one thing to see the shocking, stark image of a boy shackled to a chair in a spit hood, an image that belongs in some other country and another age.

Or the grainy footage of a group of child detainees being tear-gassed in a detention centre.

Or to hear testimony from experts about systematic failures in a juvenile justice system, overwhelmingly and increasingly populated by Indigenous offenders, over many decades.

But it is another altogether to hear that boy, now a young man serving a sentence in an adult jail, tell his story of a young life in detention in calm answers, punctuated by blinking eyes and an involuntary shoulder twitch.

The only moment his composure is threatened is not when he revisits an almost endless catalogue of shocking physical degradations and deprivations, but when he recalls the taunt of the case worker who told him his family did not care for him.

That is when his eyes welled, his voice faltered, and counsel assisting the commission, Peter Callaghan SC, offered a respite from questions that was politely declined.

“For a long time I started believing it, I guess,” he said of the taunt, before making it plain that he did not believe it now. That would have come as some relief to members of his family in the body of the court.

The impression is of a person ashamed of the very bad things he has done, who has been let down by the system from the age of 10. It is of a young man in an ill-fitting suit and too-big shirt with nothing to hide, a young man who is not seeking retribution, but to spare others his experience.

To those who say this is about things done in the past, the message is that it is about what was happening right now, in both the juvenile and the adult justice systems.

There is no doubt that many of the things Voller described will be contested by those in positions of responsibility, but it is difficult to consider him as anything but a credible witness. Certainly, that seemed to be commissioner Mick Gooda’s impression when he thanked Voller for his testimony and his bravery in coming forward.

And it is more difficult to avoid the conclusion that Voller’s experience is the experience of many others; that change on multiple levels, in systems and in attitudes, is urgently required.

The Prime Minister’s decision to call this royal commission was branded too hasty by Tony Abbott because it came as an almost knee-jerk response to a Four Corners investigation, amid complaints that the expose lacked balance and the story was not new.

“Normally governments should not respond in panic at TV programs,” Abbott said. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, went further, saying the program was “unprofessional” and used the same word to describe Turnbull’s decision to call a royal commission.

Now it is those judgments that are revealed as utterly ill-considered and premature.

Follow us on Twitter  

Hong Kong Chief Executive resignation unlikely to herald democratic change for territory

Beijing: The surprise announcement by Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying that he will not seek a second term as chief executive has ignited political manoeuvring by those seeking to replace him next year.

Mr Leung has been Hong Kong’s most unpopular chief executive since the territory’s handover from British rule in 1997, according to local polling data.

What Beijing wanted was a steady pair of hands who could maintain economic and political stability. Instead property price inflation, low wages growth and a lacklustre economy exacerbated anger over inequality, while the spectre of Beijing’s rising influence has spawned toxic divisions and anti-mainland sentiment, and the rise of a nascent independence movement.

“He is very unpopular – the society has become very polarised under him and the situation has become almost ungovernable,” Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said.

While Mr Leung cited family reasons for his surprise decision on Friday not to stand for re-election, Hong Kong-based analysts said it was also likely he had lost political backing from the Communist Party leadership.

“I don’t think any Hong Kong person will believe that he declined to stand because of his family problems. Generally Hong Kong people believe that Beijing refused to support him and therefore he decides not to run,” said Joseph Cheng, a retired political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong, and a long-time pro-democracy advocate.

“And to a large extent Hong Kong people are very happy about it, and they certainly are a bit relieved that Beijing understands that it is extremely difficult to support a very unpopular chief executive.”

But hopes for a more conciliatory, inclusive replacement are moderated by what has been a consistently hardline approach from Beijing under President Xi Jinping.

Rather than permit a free vote to allow the Hong Kong public to determine their next leader, the Communist Party’s decision in 2014 to effectively vet chief executive candidates saw massive demonstrations cripple the city streets for months. The central government in Beijing, and Mr Leung, refused to negotiate with student protest leaders, and the demonstrations ultimately faded without any concessions from the government.

A more radical independence movement formed, which then led to two pro-independence lawmakers elected. They were subsequently disqualified from office for failing to take the oath of office properly.

The next chief executive will be selected by a committee of 1200 people, which has long been criticised as giving disproportionate powers to business elites and the pro-Beijing establishment.

The three serious frontrunners in the race are all pro-establishment candidates: Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam, legislator Regina Ip and Financial Secretary John Tsang.

“On the whole the general sentiment on the part of the pro-demorcracy legislators is that none of them are worth supporting – in any case they have to toe the Beijing line,” Joseph Cheng said. “How can we trust them to fight for the interests of Hong Kong?”

Regardless of the winner, Professor Lam says it is likely the move to pass controversial national security law Article 23 will be revived. The article will criminalise sedition and subversion as a counter-measure against nascent independence movements.

The Hong Kong government pushed for the law in 2003 but was forced to shelve it after mass street demonstrations were organised in opposition. New mass demonstrations are unlikely now given the fractured nature of the pro-democracy camp and “protest fatigue”, analysts said.

“No matter who is elected the Article 23 is the top priority so [they] have no choice but to push through it,” says Willy Lam. “But [they] might do it in a less confrontational manner [with] more consultation with pro-democracy lawmakers, intellectuals, college professors and so forth.”

Media, hack this president

Donald Trump’s successful campaign relied on a combination of his public appearances plus constant social media engagement. Photo: Evan Vucci Illustration: Andrew Dyson

The election of Donald Trump broke new ground in the way information has been used and abused, presenting a historic challenge to the media.

Few moments highlighted this better than when Trump – confronted with the fact that the Russians had hacked his opponent Hillary Clinton – invited the Russians to hack Clinton some more.

Trump later brushed off the outrage by claiming he was only being sarcastic.

But the impact of the stream of emails on Clinton was real. Now there is a President-elect, with a demonstrated hostility for the media, who will bring to the White House a web of potential conflicts of interest between the world of business and governance. Murky relationships and unanswered questions about ties to foreign leaders abound.

The challenge to the media now extends to a Trump presidency; four years in which corruption or the potential for corruption can eat at US government and society.

The media have been criticised for taking Trump literally but not seriously during the campaign, while his voters took him seriously but not literally. But real news runs on facts. Without them, reporters are reduced to speculation.

If the media are going to support and defend the openness and accountability a law-based society depends on, they need hard facts to work with.

To get those, they need to adapt to the new reality of the information age and the way Trump’s campaign exploited it.

For the first time since the early 1960s, a presidential candidate has refused to divulge his taxes to the public during the campaign.

The potential conflicts of interest behind the billionaire-turned-president are historic in scale.

In this world, the media should consider a limited, surgical hacking of Trump to learn about his financial holdings, especially as they relate to foreign companies, leaders and governments.

I’m just kidding, of course.

But no reasonable observer can claim the public doesn’t have the right to know who Trump is in bed with financially, who he owes and who owes him, and how this influences the decision-making of his presidency.

Simply being outraged by the little that is known is not enough.

It’s also not the place of the media in the 21st century.

Crusading, activist journalism doesn’t make up for a lack of facts to report, Russian-American author Masha Gessen says in discussing her experience of authoritarian Russia.

The prospect of hacking – both its effect on the election and its potential for clearing up some of the mystery of Trump’s wealth, holdings and international relationships – speaks to the broader effect technology is having on the relationship between the presidency and the world.

Trump’s successful campaign relied on a combination of his public appearances plus constant social media engagement. It was fed through an army of online partisan supporters, networks of bots, and pushed and defended by trolls – some based far outside the US.

They themselves were only part of the alternate digital reality constructed with the help of Breitbart, racist alt-right activists, propaganda, misinformation, outright lies and possibly even some moderators on Reddit.

If the fact-seeking media are feeling outgunned in this world, it may be because Trump’s support relies on networks that have cut the media out of the loop.

The problem will only get worse. As it does, both Trump backers and Obama backers will find even their opponents’ legitimate victories harder to believe.

The media, confronted with the new digital reality, seem to be unsure of how to proceed. Cover all of Trump’s statements, as has been the protocol of days gone by? Or cover none because words often don’t mean what they say?

There is no substitute for hard facts.

Hacking Trump’s financial documents – just joking, folks – would not only uncover the scope of the President-elect’s conflicts with the international business world, it would put the media on a more equal footing with Trump. This is important in a democracy.

Of course, hacking the president to gain information which is legitimately in the public’s interest could lead to a whole set of new problems.

For example: is it possible to limit such an action? What would be off-limits? Would this be the new normal? Would it set the US and other liberal democracies down a slippery slope to lawlessness? Or is this the new way of the world?

The ethical, political and legal ramifications multiply outwards in many directions, almost calling for one of those media talkfests the industry seems hooked on.

But navel-gazing, introspection, self-flagellation – this isn’t what the media need now. Aggressive reporting that never reaches the minds of the uncritical masses won’t help much either.

In this world, reshaped by the internet, the media must adopt new thinking.

How new? If the public and the media mirrored the Trump campaign’s messaging approach, it might work like this:

Rather than The New York Times, Washington Post and other major outlets just competing with each other for big scoops, they would also coordinate with each other to maximise the respective exposure each outlet gets. When one outlet had a revealing story, the others could work to help amplify it, taking a patterned approach, until the White House fully addressed the issue reported.

In this climate, the media would be wise to concentrate on any potential wrongdoing and not get distracted by what is simply new and unprecedented about a Trump White House.

In this new information reality, such media efforts wouldn’t be confined to US outlets, either.

Trolling on behalf of Trump was globalised. Fair reporting for liberal democracy can be, too.

Individuals who support responsive democratic government – anywhere in the world – would then jump onto social media, tweeting every criticism of Trump’s actions, boiling down every aspect of his conflicts of interest into catchphrases, hashtags, ideas and even memes.

They would coordinate their messaging, too. Like Trump’s fans, they would create a digital culture around their political identity.

Those running vast networks of bots would program them to re-post material about the relevant story or topic, reflecting the latest development. They don’t call it “computational propaganda” for nothing.

And those who support liberal democracies – in which any problem that can be measured and understood can be addressed by a government that has the consent of the governed – would become advocates for such values in politics.

The liberal values crowd can confront those who have disappeared down a rabbit hole of irrationalism, which, to be fair, has been made more attractive by the unequal experience of globalisation and free market fundamentalism.

These defenders of liberal democracy would understand that in this world, it’s not simply the truthfulness of the message but the volume, velocity and momentum with which it is delivered that make all the difference. This realisation matters for a free press in the 21st century charged with reporting honestly and insightfully about a shadowy billionaire with authoritarian tendencies who happens to be President of the United States.

It’s a big challenge. And frankly, it may be much more a technical than a journalistic one. But the fate of democracy depends on it. So it’s worth acting on it now. That is an idea I mean seriously. Literally, too.

Chris Zappone is a Fairfax Media foreign editor.

Follow Chris Zappone on Facebook