JAKARTA, INDONESIA — The recent hacking of two national online news outlets Tempo.co and Tirto.id poses “a real threat to democracy” and press freedom, said lawyer Era Purnamasari.
Ms Era, who represents both media platforms, told TOC in a phone interview on Monday (31 August) that the hacking has not only harmed the existence of the two media platforms but also that of “social media accounts of activists and academicians who are outspoken”.
She noted that Tempo has been summoned by the Jakarta Metro Police for questioning regarding the matter, which is scheduled to take place on Tuesday (1 September). Tirto is slated to follow suit the next day.
“We filed a report to Komnas HAM and want it to monitor how the investigation is going and make sure the legal process is ongoing according to the related law,” Ms Era stated in a phone interview with TOC.
She added that she and her fellow lawyers had urged the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) to monitor the development of the investigation into the hacking attack on both media companies.
Chronology of the digital hacking of Tempo and Tirto
The cyberattack on Tempo was first detected on 21 August when its website could not be accessed for a few moments. The front page of the website turned black with the word “hoax” in bold red font.
Just a few days before the hacking, Tempo had written articles on several ‘influencers’ allegedly being paid to endorse the government’s controversial omnibus Bill on job creation.
Tirto had its seven articles removed from the website, including some of the articles criticising claims made in relation to a COVID-19 medication.
Based on the report submitted to the Jakarta Metro Police, Tirto said that the company’s editor’s email was hacked, and seven articles were deleted as a result of the security breach.
Tirto and Tempo not the only targets of digital hacking
Abdul Manan, head of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), said that that there are two other national media outlets which suffered a similar attack, without specifying their names.
Ms Era confirmed Mr Abdul’s statement, adding that only Tempo and Tirto decided to report the case to the police.
“We don’t know why the other two media outlets had decided not to report the attack to the police. What we know is that at the same time we made a report to the police regarding what happened to Tempo and Tirto, two other leading online outlets suffered such a cyberattack,” she described.
When asked about whether the hacker deliberately picked the target, Abdul—who is also a Tempo journalist—responded: “Maybe the target knows that Tempo has been an outspoken media organization for a long time. Some may say that the hacker deliberately picked the target, but who knows?”
Ms Era added that based on the report, Tempo had been hacked three times: in 2016, 2017, and 2020. However, there have been no follow-ups from the police about the two previous hackings.
Digital hacking and press freedom
The hacking of the two Indonesia media outlets has drawn international attention.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemned the hacking, particularly its effects on the outlets’ coverage on coronavirus.
“IFJ is gravely concerned by these hacking incidents and call on authorities to conduct a thorough investigation. These online attacks impede press freedom by creating a climate of fear that could lead to self-censorship,” IFJ said, as quoted by AFP.
SAFENet—a non-profit organisation advocating freedom of expression—revealed that there have been more than 30 digital attacks from September last year to August this year, targeting academicians, journalists, and experts who are critical of the government’s policies.
“The hacking has nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, I guess. However, there can be a rise in the numbers of cyberattacks due to certain issues,” a SAFENet member—who spoke on the condition of anonymity—told TOC.
Ms Era and Mr Abdul shared a similar view about the cyberattacks against journalists, activists, and government dissidents.
“The numbers of cyberattacks have risen from 2018 to 2020 so far, triggered by several issues such as demonstrations against the then-bill on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the planned revision of the Criminal Code in 2019, and now the Omnibus bill. The demonstrations against police brutality in the United States triggered the banning of several West Papua-related discussions in Jakarta, Kalimantan, and other parts of Indonesia,” Ms Era said.
Mixed interpretations of the Law on Electronic Information and Transactions Law
Articles 30 and 32 of The Law on Electronic Information and Transactions (UU ITE) criminalises the deliberate accessing of a computer/electronic system by hacking and breaking into the security system.
However, the law is also prone to mixed interpretations, raising concerns that certain groups of people may ‘abuse it to target those who raise criticism against the government’s programs or corporations’.
“One of the [most] ironic examples is the death of journalist Muhammad Yusuf in South Kalimantan in 2018. He was charged with Article 45A [of UU ITE], which cr coverage that contains hate speech. He later died in prison,” Ms Era said.
Mr Muhammad Yusuf was a suspect of hate speech after a palm oil company sued him for writing a provocative report that ruined the company’s reputation.
Journalists and press freedom activists have pushed for the revision of the UU ITE. SAFENet recorded that there had been 3,100 cases related to the electronic transaction regulation, as cited by Tirto.