Indonesian court jails environmentalist for flagging illegal farms in marine park

  • An Indonesian court has sentenced an environmental activist to seven months in jail for a Facebook post in which he criticized the growing problem of illegal shrimp farms operating inside a marine park.
  • The court found that Daniel Frits Maurits Tangkilisan had “created unrest” because of his post, under a controversial 2008 law on online speech that’s been widely used to silence environmental and human rights activists.
  • Three other activists face similar charges in the case, which centers on their efforts to highlight the presence of illegal shrimp farms inside Karimunjawa National Park, which is supposed to be a protected area.
  • Fellow rights activists have lambasted the ruling against Daniel, saying it sets a dangerous precedent for exploitation of the justice system to silence and criminalize individuals.

JAKARTA — An Indonesian court has sentenced environmental activist Daniel Frits Maurits Tangkilisan to seven months in prison for his online criticism of illegal shrimp farms inside a marine national park off Java Island.

The Jepara High Court in Indonesia’s Central Java province also fined Daniel 5 million rupiah ($315) in its April 4 ruling. It found the activist guilty of “spreading hate” under a controversial 2008 law on online speech, over a Facebook post in which he denounced the shrimp farms operating inside Karimunjawa National Park, an ostensibly protected area.

Judge Parlin Mangatas Bona Tua said Daniel’s post had “created unrest” among community members in Karimunjawa. The sentence handed down was less than the 10 months sought by prosecutors.

Daniel Frits Maurits Tangkilisan, an environmental activist, is photographed in police custody after being arrested for criticizing the presence of illegal shrimp farms in a protected area. Image courtesy of Lingkar Juang Karimunjawa.
Indonesian environment ministry officials inspect an illegal shrimp farm in Karimunjawa National Park. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

A coalition of 21 environmental and human rights groups has lambasted the court’s decision. In a press statement issued after the ruling, it said the decision set a negative precedent that anyone could be punished due to “a subjective perception of others,” regardless of the truth.

“This decision gives a bad image for Indonesian courts,” the statement said. “The impact of this decision is very bad for environmental protection efforts in Karimunjawa.”

Daniel is one of four people threatened with prosecution for protesting about the proliferation of illegal shrimp farms inside Karimunjawa National Park. The protected area has seen the number of such farms inside its borders boom in recent years, which groups like Greenpeace have linked to ecosystem degradation.

Daniel’s case is the most advanced of the ongoing reports. He was charged in June 2023 for his criticism posted on Facebook the previous year and was arrested on Dec. 7, 2023, but granted him conditional release the following day. Three of Daniel’s allies in the #SaveKarimunjawa campaign — Hasanuddin, Datang Abdul Rohim and Sumarto Rofi’un — were reported in November 2023 to the local police for posting a video of their opposition to the illegal shrimp farms.

The charges against the four activists centered on their efforts to draw attention to the growing number of unauthorized shrimp farms in the Karimunjawa archipelago, located off the northern coast of Java. According to Greenpeace Indonesia, there’s been a rise in these illegal farms since 2016. The organization blames them for harmful waste discharges that have negatively impacted the marine and coastal environment and led to a freshwater shortage.

Environmental and human rights defenders stage a protest against the prosecution of four activists from the #SaveKarimunjawa movement. Image courtesy of Lingkar Juang Karimunjawa.
The #SaveKarimunjawa movement seeks to protect the national park from further environmental damage caused by illegal shrimp farms. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Indonesia.

Most of the islands in the Karimunjawa archipelago are included inside the borders of Karimunjawa National Park, which was designated a marine reserve in 2001 and now covers an area of 1,100 square kilometers (425 square miles). A combination of zoning regulations allows artisanal fishing in certain zones, as well as tourism and research. Karimunjawa is one of seven marine national parks in Indonesia and is famous for its coral reefs, which support nearly 500 species of reef fish, making the park a popular destination for divers and snorkelers.

Daniel’s lawyers said after the ruling that they haven’t decided yet whether to file an appeal. However, the coalition of environmentalists and human rights defenders have called on the Indonesian police and other law enforcers to evaluate the investigation process and court proceedings.

Many observers have strongly criticized the case against the four environmental activists, calling it a systematic attempt by authorities to oppress, intimidate and silence them through the use of so-called SLAPP tactics, or strategic lawsuits against public participation. They also point out that the case against the activists contradicts international human rights norms, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Indonesia adopted in 2005.

“The prosecution further weakens the public’s trust in whether there is justice and law enforcement in Indonesia, where the trial against Daniel Tangkilisan was full of legal violations from the beginning and was a trial designed to silence and criminalize Daniel Tangkilisan because of his alignment with environmental protection in Karimunjawa,” the coalition’s statement reads.

The 2008 law under which the men are being prosecuted has been widely criticized for stifling opposition to the government. In December, the national parliament amended the law to impose stricter criteria for its defamation clause, requiring a higher burden of proof in legal proceedings. Human rights activists have called for a review of the 2008 law on defamation and online hate, arguing that certain provisions are vague and can be easily abused, threatening freedom of expression in the world’s third-largest democracy.

Between January 2019 and May 2022, Amnesty International documented 328 cases of physical and digital attacks on human rights defenders in Indonesia, affecting 834 individuals. These included environmental activists campaigning for a pollution-free and healthy environment. In addition, Amnesty International Indonesia pointed out that during the same period there were at least 37 documented cases of attacks on environmental and land rights defenders, involving at least 172 victims. The highest number of such attacks occurred in 2020, affecting 79 individuals.

Many environmental activists in Indonesia’s Central Java province have blamed waste discharge from illegal shrimp farms for ecosystem degradation in Karimunjawa National Park. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Indonesia.

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on 𝕏 @bgokkon.

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Indonesian activists face jail over FB posts flagging damage to marine park

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