Indonesian comedians walk fine line ahead of election Comics satirize politicians and institutions, despite legal risks

JAKARTA — Jokes are usually intended to be funny, but humor is not always the only goal — especially in Indonesia, where satire is emerging as a powerful political tool in the performances of popular comedians.

Indonesians are increasingly keen on comedy, which is the most favored genre among listeners to podcasts. According to Spotify, an online streaming platform, comedy downloads grew by 91% in the four years to 2023. There has also been a boom in satire, exemplified by the three-person group Trio Netizen, which features Ekky Parigayung, Sandi Sukron Munawar and Rio Saputra using gags to criticize politicians and policies.

“Comedy can serve as a buffer, making criticism more palatable and helping us avoid trouble when a government agency takes offense,” says Parigayung. “A dynasty and palace can be constructed over the course of many years, only to crumble in a moment when faced with laughter.”

The satire boom is driven in part by fears that freedom of expression is threatened by Indonesia’s 2008 Electronic Information and Transaction law, which critics say is being used to suppress commentary on politicians and government policies. There were 97 accusations of defamation under the EIT law in 2022, according to Halili Hasan, executive director of the SETARA Institute, an independent Jakarta-based monitoring organization.

Ulwan Fakhri, a researcher at the Indonesian Modern Humor Institute, a Jakarta-based organization that provides comedy training, says comedians typically criticize politicians when things are not going well, so an increase in the number of critical comedians indicates that the nation is experiencing difficult times. “Humor and comedy can serve as a brief break for society in an authoritarian government, allowing people to escape the prevailing pressure momentarily,” says Fakhri.

Ulwan Fakhri, a comedian and researcher at the Indonesian Modern Humor Institute, sees a strong link between comedy trends and the national mood. (Courtesy of Ulwan Fakhri) 

The comedians who perform as Trio Netizen say they believe that comedy simplifies complex issues, creating a lighthearted atmosphere that makes audiences more receptive to their message, and increasing the likelihood of issues going viral, reaching a wider audience and sparking further discussion.

The personas portrayed by Parigayung, Munawar and Saputra are intended to capture the essence of everyday life. Parigayung represents a segment of society with a background in higher education; Munawar portrays individuals from rural areas striving to access education; and Saputra embodies those who face limitations in accessing tertiary education.

Some of the topics the three addressed during a recent performance in Jakarta shined a spotlight on controversial events, including a ruling by Indonesia’s Constitutional Court on Oct. 16 that allows candidates under the age of 40 to run in presidential elections so long as they have experience as elected officials. The ruling opens the way for President Joko Widodo’s son, Gibran Rakabuming, to stand as a candidate for vice president in a presidential election due on Feb 14. The chief justice of the court is Anwar Usman, who is Gibran’s uncle.

The growing interrelation between comedy and politics owes much to Indonesia’s social media boom, which has made information easily available without restrictions. Fakhri says that Indonesia has a long history of comic interventions for serious purposes, including humor used by the actor Tan Tjeng Bok to inspire independence fighters during the country’s colonial era.

Trio Netizen say they use comedy to simplify complex issues. (Courtesy of Trio Netizen) 

Even during Indonesia’s 1966-98 “New Order” government, led by the authoritarian President Suharto, there were comedic portrayals of the administration, such as the anonymous book “Mati Ketawa Cara daripada Soeharto” (“Suharto’s Way to Die Laughing”).

“During that period, comedians employed the use of satire and metaphor as effective techniques,” says Fakhri. “It’s quite straightforward; comedians can discuss particular characteristics without explicitly stating them,” he adds. “The reason why satire comedy has become more popular is that many from Generation Z (people born in the decade either side of 2000) have experienced a lot of challenges in the last couple of years, including the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result, their jokes are also slightly darker.”

Sakdiyah Ma’ruf, another Indonesian comedian, says that the growing use of comedy and satire to target politicians or the government also reflects reduced independence and increasing bias in the country’s national mass media. “Social media helps comedians to break the television gatekeeping and allow themselves to reach for the public,” Ma’ruf says.

However, while satire can help comedians to criticize politicians in subtle ways, there are clear risks. Lampung-based stand-up comedian Aulia Rakhman was arrested on Dec. 10 on suspicion of blasphemy after allegedly making insulting comments about the Prophet Muhammad in a skit performed at a campaign event for Anies Baswedan, a former governor of Jakarta who is one of three candidates in the presidential election.

Sakdiyah Ma’ruf, pictured here during a performance, says it is important for comedians to empathize with politicians and the government so that criticisms can be received as part of a discussion rather than as attacks on individuals. (Photo by Sakdiyah Ma’ruf)

These legal dangers have had a chilling effect on comedians. “We impose self-censorship on ourselves. When we were writing our skit about the [constitutional court] we consulted friends with expertise in politics before even starting,” says Parigayung, noting that research can sometimes take longer than the actual performance.

“Even though we’re sensitive to potential offense, sometimes it can come from unexpected directions,” he says, adding that making jokes is like riding a bicycle: once you know the track, it is easier to ride smoothly and predict what is coming next.

Even so, comedians’ carefully crafted content is sometimes deemed too controversial — and performances or broadcasts are sometimes canceled because of protests from individuals targeted by comedians. Cancellations do not always prevent the humor from surfacing, however. After a TV broadcast was blocked in November, Trio Netizen published the script on social media, where it was seen by more than 1 million viewers.

Some critical comedians, including Parigayung, have also suffered hacking on social media, apparently connected with comments about important people. Parigayung says his Instagram account was unexpectedly taken over by someone in Vietnam after he criticized a state agency. “I criticized [something] and transformed it into content, only to discover that it was not well-received by many individuals,” says Parigayung.

Virdika Rizky Utama, a political analyst from PARA Syndicate, a Jakarta-based think tank, says there are indications that politicians are benefiting from criticism in the run-up to the presidential election. (Courtesy of Virdika Rizky Utama)

Ma’ruf says it is important for comedians to empathize with politicians and the government so that criticisms can be received as part of a discussion rather than as attacks on individuals. “Empathy is crucial,” she says. “Our goal should be to highlight various ugly truths around us, not fabricate narratives. Therefore, exploring personal stories and experiences, or offering political criticism based on one’s own perspective, is undoubtedly more valid.”

Virdika Rizky Utama, a researcher at PARA Syndicate, a Jakarta-based think tank, says there are indications that politicians are benefiting from criticism in the run-up to the presidential election, when Anies will face off against Ganjar Pranowo, another former provincial governor, and Prabowo Subianto, a former general. Widodo is prevented from standing again by constitutional term limits.

Prabowo employed what commentators labeled an “adorable grandpa” persona in a campaign debate on Dec. 12, using dance and theatrics to lighten the mood and remaining calm when Anies attacked him in relation to responsibility for riots during the last presidential election campaign in 2019. (Prabowo’s relaxed approach failed, however, when Ganjar questioned him about alleged human rights abuses.)

Even in the fraught atmosphere of the presidential election, comedians can hope to stay clear of legal action through scrupulous neutrality. But comics say the polarization of Indonesian politics makes this a challenging task. “It’s impossible to remain neutral in Indonesia. It’s like trying to use a water faucet in the neutral position — it just doesn’t work,” says Parigayung.

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