Groups warn Indonesia app 'risks worsening' religious intolerance

App allowing public report suspected heretical beliefs raises fears it may lead to increased persecution of minorities.

The Smart Pakem app has been downloaded more than 1,000 times since its launch last month [Al Jazeera]

Medan, Indonesia - Indonesian human rights lawyer Ranto Sibarani is trying to remain optimistic.

His client, Meiliana, a double minority in Indonesia as a Chinese-Indonesian and a Buddhist, is awaiting the outcome of her final appeal later this month against a blasphemy conviction. In August, the mother of four was sentenced to 18 months in prison by a court in North Sumatra over a disputed comment about the volume of her local mosque's speakers.

"Meiliana is hopeful that justice will be served and she will be freed," Sibarani told Al Jazeera.

"She's surprised that her case even went to trial."

Meiliana's legal troubles began when a neighbour in her hometown of Tanjung Balai claimed that she had asked for the volume of her local mosque's speakers to be lowered, saying that they "hurt her ears".

According to Sibarani, Meiliana only remarked that the volume appeared to have increased in recent years, and made no mention of wanting the speakers to be turned down. No recordings of the conversation were presented at her trial.

But while Sibarani is hopeful about Meiliana, and despite the ire that her case has caused - including an online petition calling for her release - Indonesian authorities appear to be doubling down on reporting cases of perceived religious intolerance or blasphemy.

To that end, a new mobile application released last month by the Jakarta prosecutor's office has made it easier for members of the public to report suspected cases of religious heresy.

The Smart Pakem app takes its name from Bakor Pakem, a division sitting under the umbrella of the Jakarta prosecutor's office that has been "extremely influential" when pressuring the government to ban religious groups, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The app, which can be downloaded for free via the Google Play store and is listed under the "education" label, has sparked fears among rights groups and activists that it will be used to target religious minorities in the Muslim-majority nation.

Smart Pakem enables users to report complaints about issues of "heresy" or "deviant beliefs" online - previously, those had to be submitted in writing and could lead to Bakor Pakem launching an investigation.

Featuring a list of organisations deemed to be "heretical", the app will be used as a resource by the prosecutor's office to collect and store information on groups believed to be practising faiths beyond the country's six officially recognised religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

It also states the names of the leaders of these organisations groups, including Ahmadiyyah, Gafatar and Shia, along with the addresses of their offices.

This information could be seen as a way of encouraging attacks on these individuals or their places of work, according to activists, and has led to calls for the app to be revoked.

"All Smart Pakem is going to do is exacerbate cases of religious intolerance in Indonesia," says Sibarani. "It's just going to cause more conflict between the religious communities and now all disputes will be settled through making a complaint via the app, rather than between individuals."


'Educate the public'

Baiq Wardhani, a lecturer in politics at Universitas Airlangga, says Smart Pakem needs to be treated with caution.

"How do you define heresy? This will trigger a lot of debate because the definition of the word depends on one's beliefs," she told Al Jazeera. "The app is obviously a violation of the national constitution, so it's stupid that the Jakarta prosecutor's office would allow it to be available on people's mobile because it can be easily abused for people's own interests."

Mukri, the prosecutor's office spokesperson who like many Indonesians only goes by one name, did not respond to Al Jazeera's requests for comment.

Local media have quoted officials at the prosecutor's office as saying that the app was designed to educate Indonesians and improve the transparency of the reporting process.

"The objective is to provide easier access to information about the spread of beliefs in Indonesia, to educate the public and to prevent them from following doctrines of an individual or a group that are not in line with the regulations," Nirwan Nawawi, a spokesperson for the prosecutor's office, told the AFP news agency in a statement in November.


Clash of old and new

Indonesia's blasphemy law, known locally as Pasal 156A KUHP, carries a maximum five-year prison sentence. Introduced in 1965 under Indonesia's first President Sukarno, the law was originally put in place to clamp down on indigenous beliefs across the archipelago, but in recent years it has been increasingly used to jail religious minorities.

According to HRW, the law was only used eight times in its first four decades but saw a spike in sentencing under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-2014), with 125 convictions. Since 2014, under current President Joko Widodo, more than 20 people have been convicted of blasphemy.

Usman Hamid, the executive director of Amnesty Indonesia, warned that the app "will certainly trigger wider, as well as systematic, repercussions against anyone or [a] community deemed as deviant by Bakor Pakem, vigilante groups and hardliners reporting to the app".

Hamid also argued that the release of Smart Pakem is yet another step towards a more conservative form of politics in Indonesia.

"Since Yudhoyono's era, we've seen a series of closures and burnings of houses of worship, banning of organisations, imprisonment of leaders as well as persecution against civilians deemed as 'deviant'. It has been driven by Bakor Pakem as they’re the one with authority to name groups or individuals as deviant," added Hamid, urging Widodo to disband the body.

Andreas Harsono, a researcher at HRW, described Smart Pakem as a troubling clash of old and new.

"This app is the combination of an archaic act - a law that is being abolished in more than two thirds of the world - and a modern technology. The combination could be dangerous, more dangerous than using traditional communication means like landline or face-to-face reporting."

The app has so far been downloaded more than 1,000 times, and Harsono said Google is facing a "challenge" in its decision over "how to navigate between Indonesia's blasphemy law and the United Nations' regulations to revoke that toxic law".

Last year, a group of human rights experts from world body called on the country to scrap the crime of blasphemy following the conviction of Jakarta's ex-Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama after comments related to verses in the Quran were deemed to be blasphemous.

"Criminal laws that penalise blasphemy represent an unlawful restriction on freedom of expression, and disproportionately target persons belonging to religious minorities or traditional religions, non-believers and political dissidents," Ahmed Shaheed, special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said at the time.

For Sibarani, Meiliana's lawyer, the release of the Smart Pakem app risks provoking similar cases like the one of his client's, considering the ease with which members of the public can now report instances of perceived religious intolerance.

"Even without an app, Meiliana ended up in prison. With the release of Smart Pakem, there's a real fear that there'll be even more Meilianas in prison in the future," he says.