Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five

INDONESIA: The Net as a Weapon, By Tedjabayu


"A super-modern aeroplane built by the state owned aircraft industry, was just taking off from Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Jakarta. A pre-recorded speech by the then director of the company, Minister of Research and Technology BJ Habibie came through the cabin's PA speakers: "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are proud to announce that this aeroplane was built by the bright sons and daughters of our country. This is a fly by wire aeroplane. Now it speeds up into its cruising speed of 5,000 km per hour and climbing to reach its normal level of 45,000 feet. It has no pilots or stewardesses aboard because all are controlled by the most advanced computers..crackled,... the most advanced computers, advanced computers, computers..." Then the plane went straight to the blackness of space where the debris of the satellites eternaly circling around our planet."


That is one example of hundreds of jokes we can find in the Indonesian dissidents' mailing lists or Websites during the so called "New Order" era.

CAPABLE OF cutting through time and space, the Internet offers a means of communication not previously dreamed of. It has created important new possibilities as it shrinks distances and provides an astounding volume and variety of information to those who have computer access. One result of these is the acceleration of the development of solidarity networks among peoples, regions, and countries. In Indonesia, it has even managed to help topple a strongman who, until his unscheduled resignation in May 1998, had been Asia's longest reigning postwar ruler. To Indonesia's powers that be, controlling the Internet has become close to being an obsession.

But there seems to be no controlling the medium, which has thwarted people who had succeeded in repressing all sorts of free expression for more than three decades.

Try as it might, the state apparatus seems to be unable to anticipate and contain the extremely speedy development of the Internet, which in Indonesia is still free of censorship. Thus, while activists belonging to the "illegal" faction of the opposition People's Democratic Party (PRD) may be on the run from authorities, they are free to convey their propaganda on the Web, and even insult the head of the armed forces and the President if they feel like it.

Indeed, there is as yet no match for the speed and capacity of the Internet to disseminate information and views, making it a medium that is greatly superior to all others for that purpose. Although Indonesians are still shackled by repressive regulations and state control such as the Anti-Subversion Law, a small piece of equipment combined with a telephone cable has enabled them to speak their minds without much fear of official retribution. They can travel throughout the country and even beyond its borders without the state being able hold them down. Many have already stumbled on a number of simple to use but sophisticated tools such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) that protect Internet users from state censorship. Further safeguards are available through the anonymity offered by Hotmail, Yahoo and Iname, among others. Of course, it has been a bonus that there is a scarcity of people among the security forces and intelligence service who are Internet savvy.


The Net-ting of Indonesia

The truth is that Indonesian authorities, like their counterparts in other countries, simply could not have imagined that a piece of ordinary equipment called the computer would produce something like the Net, and that this would be too powerful for them to control. After all, when data communication was first used in Indonesia, it was by Bank Indonesia. This was in the mid-1970s; even uber-geek god Bill Gates of Microsoft still walked among mortals then. The Indonesian government itself later developed inter-computer communications for state universities aimed at fulfilling administrative needs with respect to curriculum development.

But then the arrival of PC clones and the subsequent proliferation of pirated computer programs enabled students and other computer buffs to develop their creativity in the realms of both software and hardware. This accelerated the Indonesian middle class's ability to absorb new advances in the computer field and made Indonesia one of the leading countries with respect to PC usage.

Indosat, a state company that manages satellite communications, soon introduced a global data communication service, and provided packet switching in the form of leased line and dial-up services. But these services did not attract many clients because of their high cost as well as a slowpoke data transfer speed of just 2,400 bps for a leased line.

Then came Lintasarta, a joint venture company (comprising Indosat and the state-owned Bank Indonesia) that opened up new access through Internet networks. Through a joint venture with SprintNet USA, data communications users then still limited to big and medium sized businesses that often used US-based Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as America On Line and Compuserve were able to reduce their communication costs because they no longer had to pay for long distance calls and could instead make local calls.

May 1995 witnessed the emergence of Radnet, the first ISP in Indonesia, followed several months later by IndoInternet, a joint venture company between the government-owned company PT Indosat and investors from the private sector. After that dozens of other ISPs set up shop, primarily in Jakarta and Bandung. The government's own ambitious project to open Internet access throughout Indonesia was realized when, in 1996, the Indonesia Postal Service agency decided to expand its business by opening ISPs in every provincial capital. It is no exaggeration to say that 1996 was the year cyberspace routes opened up for Indonesian society, or at least for the middle class, just one year after Time magazine proclaimed 1995 as the "Year of the Internet."

By 1998, ISP subscribers in Indonesia were already some 100,000 in number. Many of these subscribers belonged to the middle class (a term that is not really appropriate to use because in Indonesia it refers more to financial worth), although there were also some members of that small stratum of society known as the upper class, which includes both business people and bureaucrats. Students were also among the most avid Netizens by then, as were non-government organizations (NGOs).

An interesting development has been the emergence of Internet 'shops' in big cities. These are usually cafes or Telecommunication Centers that are equipped with computers with Internet access. In university towns these cafes are extremely popular among students because of the low cost, around Rp. 2,000 per hour (about one USD prior to the economic slump).

It is from these sites that many activists and students are able to receive news about events that are not fully reported in the mainstream media. Because every cafe also provides a printer for hire, users are able to obtain hard copies of the material. With a speed that is hard to estimate, printouts of alternative news are then distributed down to the grassroots.


Subversion in Cyberspace

It is hard to pinpoint just when it was that the Web began to be transformed into a weapon of dissent in Indonesia, but it i s clear that Indonesian students lucky enough to study abroad had discovered its many uses earlier than their compatriots at home. Man y of these students overseas at first began using the Net to conduct academic discussions through online conferences they created as well as through listservs or mailing lists. Student networks soon sprang up, such as IndozNet for those studying in Australia, ISNet for Muslim students and ParokiNet for the Roman Catholics. But it did not take them long to realize that cyberspace also afforded them the opportunity to talk about topics considered taboo back home, such as human rights abuses and the repressive policies of the Indonesian government.

Then there was also John McDougall, a US citizen, who had begun an information company in 1984. McDougall's firm specialized in research findings and quality articles from the Indonesian media. While he sold these commercially, McDougall also disseminated the data he compiled to various newsgroups and Internet conferences. He encountered such enthusiastic response that in 1990, he set up a free mailing list that subsequently became known throughout the world as "Apakabar (How do you do)."

Apakabar offered a wide range of views, from the radical to the moderate, from pro-democracy activists to intelligence officers masquerading as Netizens. These state agents were supposed to counter any negative inf ormation about the regime, and they did their job using both polite and coarse language. But the genuine Apakabar aficionados were almost always able to spot which ones were bogus Netizens, and argued against the disinformation to such good effect that most of the latter soon fell silent. Apparently, only a few of these pro-government militants were able to stand using such a democratic -- and at times approaching anarchic -- medium.

This mailing list subsequently played a central role in spreading up-to-date information about Indonesia. It is also likely to have been an important factor in accelerating Indonesian society's awareness of the need to re-evaluate its values. Apakabar had become a site for extremely open and democratic debates on Indonesia, helped no doubt by McDougall's willingness to allow anonymity to any Apakabar user who requested it. In the end, the US-based Apakabar's success inspired a number of groups in Indonesia to spread ideas and democratic ideals through mailing lists, as this was safer than using the print media that had all sorts of restrictions.

While all these were going on, Indonesian NGOs were also busy discovering the Web. Probably the first NGO to obtain access to the Internet was Wahana Lingkungan Hidup (WALHI), actually a forum for various environmental groups, that in 1989 got a link-up with an ISP in Europe. Sadly, a lack of human resources meant th at this access was not used to full effect.

It took some more years before Indonesian advocacy NGOs began tapping the power of the Net. In 1990, the LBH (Legal Aid Institute) obtained Internet access and started to post reports about the human rights situation in Indonesia on Apakabar. But it was not until five years later, when this group posted an Urgent Action (UA) on Apakabar, that cyberspace was finally recognized as a real battleground between the pro-democracy activists and the supporters of the Suharto rule. The UA, consisting of only three short sentences, was a protest against the murder of a woman labor activist who had been leading a workers' strike in East Java; the military was the suspected killer.

In less than six hours after the UA was posted, the fax machines in the Office of the President, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Defense and Security were jammed with hundreds of sheets of protest from around the world. This event dramatically changed Marsinah, a young and unknown village girl from East Java, into a workers' heroine known worldwide. It also sparked an NGO-instigated online information war against one of the harshest militaristic regimes in the world.

By that time, though, the Internet was already hosting Websites and listservs run by Indonesian journalists and academics who were increasingly chafing under the state's repression of mainstream media. This intensified after the banning of three leading magazines Tempo, DeTIK and Editor in June 1994.

Fearing the same would happen to them, the rest of Indonesia's local publications practically surrendered to the authorities. But ex-Tempo staffers and its management decided to go online and developed the "Tempo Interaktif." This was most probably the first step in the use of the Internet as a tool of dissent by journalists who felt oppressed by the Suharto regime. Student activists downloaded the contents of Tempo Interaktif to make hard copies, which were then sold on campuses and among NGOs.

People thirsty for knowledge regarding what was really going on in Indonesia began flocking to the Web. This rise in interest was accommodated by the emergence of the likes of SiaR, MateBEAN, MeunaSAH, MamberaMO, KDPNet and AJINews, which complemented materials offered by other sites and listservs.

Such online information and news are considered to have been crucial strengthening public conviction that it was time for the Suharto government to go. Among the most explosive material that used to be found only on the Internet was the list of assets of the Suharto and Habibie families and their cronies, compiled by Dr. George Junus Aditjondro. This was downloaded and then circulated in photocopied form while Suharto was still in power. After his resignation, the mas s media began to quote Aditjondro's research. Recently, various publishing houses put it in book form.

There was also the GoRo-GoRo on the SiarList mailing list. Actually a collection of political jokes about Suharto and his supporters, GoRo-GoRo became immensely popular and was widely disseminated. The jokes were eventually published in book form that was reproduced tens of thousands of times.

Even today, young journalists frustrated that their reports do not get published in full in the print media post their works on the Internet. Some journalists have even formed an online discussion group called "Kuli Tinta (Slave of Ink)." The SiarList itself remains like a news agency that publishes political and economic news as well as articles on human rights.

For those without access to a computer, children selling newspapers on the streets sold hard copies of downloaded Internet news at low prices. The Internet news sold very well, but the children were unknowingly putting themselves at risk. Recently, army and police officers also arrested two children selling photocopies of downloaded materials. To the surprise of the children, the army soldiers were taking those copies for their own purpose!

White collar workers downloaded the alternative news or pamphletes from their office's access to the internet and distributed among them. The photocopy operators stole some copies and brought it to his friends. They all brought the materials to their homes and then disseminated it to theirneigbours. The neighbours will give the copies to their relatives. Again andagain the news will spread like bushfire in the middle of dry season andcombined with the works of advocacy NGO activists, it burned the hearts ofthe people.

And then they decided to join the students on the streets, supporting them with food enough to be eaten by a whole brigade. On physical clashes between the students and the military like the Semanggi Bridge Incident on 12 November 1998, people came to help the wounded or dead students, carrying them to a nearest hospital by motorbikes. Children not afraid of being shot by the still unknown snipers using the cruel and deadly quikshok bullets, helped their elders by carrying bottles of petrols or gasoline and made molotov bombs to retaliate the fully armed army soldiers.


Efforts to Control and Censor

Other countries in Southeast Asia have since tried to thwart dissension on the Web by imposing restrictions on Internet access. In Indonesia, the Suharto government used to hint about similar res trictions through the Minister of Post and Telecommunications who said regulations were needed to protect the young generation from the dangers of pornography and guerrilla politics via the Internet. Senior armed forces officials also criticized postings that were "divisive" or that "incited" or "endangered political stability." Fortunately, though, regulations on the Net have yet to be introduced.

Still, ISP users in Indonesia have reported attempts to censor the flow of information on the Net. E-mail sometimes fails to reach its destination, or is delayed for several days. E-mail addresses known to be used by dissidents are said to be subject to censorship attempts by unknown individuals within certain providers. In the days leading up to the series of student demonstrations in 1998, access to ISPs in Jakarta was very difficult. It may very well be that this was because too many people were trying to use them at the same time. But many observers believe that the providers were being forced to sabotage the system.

A number of conglomerates such as Freeport McMoran, for example, apparently censored postings from certain mailing lists. Every posting from any of these mailing lists was returned to the provider from which they were sent with the note "User Name Unknown." A number of sensitive postings were also discarded with the reason that the address to which they were sent was not known.

For their part, many Indonesian Netizens have always been wary of the Web, despite its seeming invulnerability to outside "threats." Almost all advocacy NGOs in Indonesia, for example, agreed early on that the Net did not necessarily free them from risk of official retaliation for what they did in cyberspace. Eventually they concluded that in addition to using commercial ISPs, they also needed e-mail access that did not have any direct link to the Internet.

In 1994, the advocacy NGO community developed a restricted e-mail system called the NusaNet Consortium. Today, there are five towns in Indonesia that function as NusaNet sub-hosts. NusaNet also plays a major role in disseminating alternative news from the Internet to the NGO community. According to its users, the NusaNet e-mail system and the newsgroups within it are fairly secure because they generally use the PGP encryption system for inter-NGO communications.

But there will always be hackers. In the Indonesian experience, though, Net infiltration so far seems to be more concentrated on the issue of East Timor th an anything else. In February 1997, hackers, apparently from Portugal, infiltrated a Website run by the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that was regarded as having disseminated lies about East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that was annexed by Indonesia in 1976. The hackers not only got in the site, but also managed to change the appearance of the Web page, altering the greeting "Welcome to the Department of Foreign Affairs Republic of Indonesia" to read "Welcome to the Department of Foreign Affairs Fascist Republic of Indonesia."

Prior to this, in late November 1996, the homepage of the BPPT office that had been singing praises of the technological developments under then Minister of Research and Technology B.J. Habibie was also penetrated by Portuguese hackers. The attack, it was said, had been made to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sta. Cruz tragedy in which a still undetermined number of unarmed pro-independence demonstrators were shot dead by Indonesian soldiers. Such hacker attacks were repeated on various official Indonesian government sites that functioned as propaganda tools, including the home pages of the armed forces, the police, the Ministry of Defense and Security, as well as the ruling party Golkar. In retaliation, pro-Indonesian government hackers attacked a Website in Portugal that was known as the "den" of politically conscious compu ter activists.


The Internet in Indonesia's Future

For most Indonesian Netizens, though, the Internet obviously goes beyond East Timor and its myriad problems. It is not far-fetched to say that while the students in Tiananmen Square fought the Chinese government with fax machines, Indonesian students, NGOs and journalists marked a new era by speeding up the downfall of a corrupt regime partly through the might of the Internet. To be sure, not only were intense discussions about democracy and human rights held in cyberspace and then disseminated through photocopies of downloaded materials, much of the militant actions aimed against Suharto were coordinated on the Net.

Today, the Internet continues to be crucial to Indonesia's future, and is still regarded as an alternative medium for views and news that would otherwise remain unheard and unwritten. While Indonesian authorities are less strict on media these days than they were during the Suharto regime, there are still reports that go unpublished and vital information that does not get to the people. The Internet has thus continued as the one venue in which people can express the otherwise inexpressible and have access to information denied them in the mainstream media.

But there are indications that the Net may also evolve into a mainstream medium of sorts, especially now that the cost of produci ng print media has risen sharply. Newprint now costs almost Rp. 9,000 ($1) per kilo. There are also the overhead expenses of editorial offices and other production needs -- such as film, batteries, electricity, telephone, and printing -- to consider. Not cheap even during pre-crisis days, all of these now run astronomical tabs.

Although various forms of mass media have emerged recently, observers see this as merely an element of political euphoria. There is no doubt that the mainstream print media in Indonesia are under the threat of bankruptcy. One means of ensuring their continued existence is to evolve into paperless media and go online. It is highly possible that Indonesian media organizations may yet find themselves competing in cyberspace.


This article by Tedjabayu ([email protected]) was initially written for a Asian Journalists' seminar in Subic Bay, the Philippines during 1998. It was rewritten for the Next Five Minutes Tactical Media Conference in Amsterdam, March 12-14 1999. When asked for biographical details, the author responds only that "I am nobody except that I am only a small screw of a big machine of change."

[Editor Postscript: " The Indonesian Government is being blamed for a highly-organised attack on computers in Ireland which brought down the East Timor virtual country domain...." For More information, see: ]




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