Academic freedom under pressure in Indonesia

How can the WINNER conference support academic freedom in Indonesia? Panellist Herlambang Wiratraman hopes to get Dutch support for promoting and strengthening academic freedom in Indonesia. For instance, “Data protection doesn’t protect citizens or researchers. I hope that Dutch academics will speak out and share their experiences, and even the Dutch government needs to reconsider its research cooperations that don’t live up to fundamental freedoms.”

When he witnessed Leiden law students challenge the dean and debate the faculty on sensitive topics like the extreme-right politician Geert Wilders, Herlambang Wiratraman (Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom and assistant professor at the Faculty of Law, Universitas Gadjah Mada) was excited. “That’s why Leiden University is really a ‘Praesidium Libertatis’, a ‘stronghold of freedom’. This would never happen in Indonesia, students challenging a dean. At least not without retaliation.”

Not many dare to speak out

”Of course academic freedom is not absolute”, explains the legal scholar Wiratraman. “But rights must always be limited on the basis of legal arguments. Proportionality for instance. You cannot curb academic freedom because you don’t like the research results.” The practice Wiratraman witnesses in Indonesia strongly diverges from that theory. “When an academic has an opinion on the current government, he or she is targeted by government officials and even law enforcement. You can be interrogated, fined or even put in jail for venting a dissenting opinion.”

Unfortunately, not many Indonesian researchers dare to speak out. Nevertheless, some hundred academics have joined the Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom (KIKA), where Herlambang Wiratraman serves on the Advisory Board. The Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom (KIKA) is a national coalition of researchers and students who are concerned about human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially those related to academic freedom. KIKA started in 2017 and has four autonomous branches at local levels, in Aceh, Papua, Bali and East Kalimantan.

With his organisation, Wiratraman works on bolstering the legal framework for academic freedom. “In 2017, we drafted the Surabaya Principles for Academic Freedom. Step by step, we are working on embedding these principles in national and international law.” For Wiratraman, academic freedom has two aspects. Firstly the right to individual freedom – ”Compare it to the freedom of expression” - and secondly the freedom of educational institutions that secures their autonomy. But resistance to this is strong: in 2019, the government passed a science law that requires all research considered ‘dangerous’ to have a permit issued by the central government.
When asked whether Wiratraman himself has encountered threats related to his work on academic freedom, he smiles meaningfully. “Let’s say I put myself at risk.”

Independent research is at stake

Academic freedom has everything to do with environmental issues, Wiratraman explains. “We face excessive exploitation of natural resources in Indonesia. This is not just about the environment itself, but about the destruction of human kind.” Recently, Science reported on the case of a Dutch environmental scholar challenging the Indonesian government’s notion that ‘the orangutan populations in the country are thriving’. The government’s response was to ban the researcher from the country. Wiratraman: ”The independence of Indonesian science in general and conservation science more specifically is at stake here.”

He continues, “It happens even more outside of Java. The case of Erik Meijaard speaks volumes. He did over 15 years of research on rhinos and orangutans and the problem of deforestation and land burning. But his conclusions were inconvenient.” According to Wiratraman, the Indonesian government should at least have exchanged views with the critical scholar. Instead, Meijaard was expelled from the country. “To me, this is not surprising”, Wiratraman adds. “Under this regime, the attitude and the narrative have become ‘anti-science’.”

Another issue Wiratraman likes to draw attention to is academic appointments. “In Indonesia, the Minister has a major say (35%) in the appointment of the rector of the university. This makes it difficult to criticise the government. If we want to tackle big problems like climate change, the government should not curtail academic freedom. Otherwise, valuable knowledge will be lost.

Data protection

What does Wiratraman hope to gain from the WINNER conference in which he is taking part? “With regard to the topic of digital transformation, I would like to stress that we currently have little data protection in Indonesia. In fact, there is limited understanding of data protection. Under the Electronic Information and Transaction Law, there is a cyber defamation article that could target academics in order to silence criticism.”

“The most recent government bill on data protection protects mainly officials and corporations, while on the other hand, it offers limited protection for citizens’ or researchers’ rights. In order to promote scientists’ freedom, we need solidarity from the Dutch side to strengthen data protection as well as digital rights for researchers.”

Another thing Wiratraman expects from the Netherlands is stricter criteria for funding. “For example, at the University of North Sumatra (Universitas Sumatera Utara), a students’ journalist group was dissolved because of an LGBT poem one student wrote. And it didn’t stop at that: they even destroyed and set fire to the students’ office. If this university were to cooperate with, for example, Dutch Universities, what consequences would this have for the cooperation?”

Furthermore, Wiratraman believes the Dutch government should stop funding research cooperations that thwart fundamental freedoms. The Netherlands should increase its scrutiny and look at criteria for academic freedom, since the Dutch government has invested a lot of money in research cooperation.

Who is Herlambang Wiratraman?

Herlambang Wiratraman, assistant professor at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), is a vice coordinator at ALMI’s ‘science and society’ and a specialist in constitutional law, human rights and freedom of expression. He is also the current chair of the Research Center for Law and Social Justice, UGM Faculty of Law, and is an Advisory Board member of KIKA, the Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom. Furthermore, Herlambang is the recipient of the 2018 Yamin Award on Constitutional Law Studies and the 2022 Tasrif Award for Freedom of Expression and the Press.

About the WINNER

The Week of Indonesia-Netherlands Education and Research (WINNER) is an initiative by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Jakarta, Nuffic Neso Indonesia, the Indonesian Academy of Young Scientists (ALMI), the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), and the Dutch Research Council (NWO). The upcoming edition, in which Herlambang Wiratraman will be pannellist will take place from 18 – 20 October 2022. Read more about the WINNER on our event page.