2013: Short Message Service (SMS) Blast: A story from the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS)

– By Rei Firda Amalia, International Desk, KontraS, Indonesia –

‘In more theoretical terms, social movements require ongoing collective power that is, the ability to mobilize collective action – to effectively confront power elites.’ (Claus & Wiesenthal, 1980).

In today’s world positive changes for democracy and human rights cannot be achieved by any single actor, not by any single activity, nor by any single organisation. Change will come when all in society that want it stand together hand in hand, willing to collaborate together in order to achieve the desired situation. Democracy and human rights cannot be exclusively for only some people, some organisation, or some part of the country. They need to be enjoyed by all, fought for by the entire society in a collective effort. In Indonesia, this situation is both a challenge and an opportunity for civil society organisations (CSOs) who work for human rights, such as the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS).

Participation in human rights advocacy and campaigns

For us, challenges come in many forms. One of them is the lack of wider participation for human rights advocacy and campaigns. The people who participate in our campaigns and advocacy are mostly the same people who already participated in our previous activities. There are two reasons behind this problem: first, the lack of understanding of or even willingness to learn about human rights among the general public; and second, those people who are willing to participate do not know how to contribute to human rights advocacy or campaigns.

KontraS – a leading human rights organisation in Indonesia – has been trying to address that particular challenge by using various different tools, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SoundCloud, websites, and now Short Message Service (SMS) blasts. The question is, why are such tools, like SMS blasts, significant for strengthening the human rights movement?

SMS blasts

This article will specifically explain one of the newest strategies used by KontraS; the SMS blast as a new campaign tool for human rights. Obviously, to some SMS blasts may sound out of date compared to other communications tools, such as WhatsApp, LINE, Google Talk (GTalk) and more. However, SMS texts are still widely used in many remote areas of Indonesia away from Java, which do not have strong mobile phone coverage. Thus, as a communication tool SMS messages are still important in order to reach a wider audience and to spread news.

In some situations, SMS blasts can be used as an easy way to campaign. The advantage is that the target audience, the SMS receivers will instantly receive the message directly to her/his phone. KontraS used this SMS blasts campaign tool for the first time in mid of 2013.

Bill on Mass Organisation

At that time, Parliament was trying to rush the Bill on Mass Organisation to be passed, which would limit CSOs through several key restrictions, such as: the prohibition to develop and disseminate theories or ideologies that are contrary to Pancasila;[1] banning engagement in activities that endanger the integrity of the country; and forbidding activities contrary to the Constitution (Article 50, paragraph 2 of Mass Organisation Law).

Rejection of the Bill was coming from various parties, both from religious groups such as Muhammadiyah – the second largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia – from researchers from various organisation, including the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI), from CSOs working on different issues, and the wider public. The Mass Organisation Bill equated a diverse group of CSOs under the same strict regulations. From radical groups that use violence and intimidation as their tools to achieve their interests, to organisations that have non-violence as their core principles and values, under the Bill they were all considered to be the same.

Direct message to Marzuki

The Coalition for Freedom of Assembly – which KontraS was also part of – was established shortly after the Government formed a Task Force on Mass Organisation in October 2011. From the very beginning the main aim of the Coalition was to reject the Bill on Mass Organisation.

The day before the Plenary Session woul d be held in the House of Representatives, KontraS, together with the Coalition for Freedom of Assembly, set out a last ditch campaign. At that time, KontraS asked the all citizens to send a short message directly to Marzuki Ali – who served as Speaker of the House of Representative from 2009 to 2014. The message was concise and clear, demanding the House not to authorise the Bill.

The first kick off message came from the Coordinator of KontraS:

‘I am Haris Azhar, from KontraS. With his message I would like to ask you, Marzuki Ali, and the House of Representatives that you lead, not to pass the Mass Organisation Bill tomorrow.’

This short message was sent a day before the Plenary Session. It was followed by many, many more, all carrying the same message, showcasing the public support for the campaign. Interestingly, the short messages did not only come from Indonesian citizens, but also from people from across Asia. To some journalists, Marzuki Ali confessed that he received short messages regarding the Mass Organisation Bill from India, Malaysia and many other countries. All the messages he received were demanding the Parliament not to pass the bill.

Freedom of Assembly and Association

To gain more participation regionally, KontraS invited the members of FORUM-ASIA to participate in the campaign.
This initiative came after we considered that, according to a Freedom House report, the Freedom of Assembly and Association (FoAA) had not been fully realised throughout Southeast Asia.[2] It seemed that FoAA, while one of
the fundamental freedoms, was not a priority for some of the Southeast Asian countries. The report, for example, 261 categorised Burma still as not free, while it made quite significant progress. Other Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia before the Mass Organisation Bill was enacted, were still categorised as free. Most Southeast Asian countries were categorised as partly free.

Recognising that restrictions on FoAA were a common problem in Southeast Asia, KontraS raised the problem faced by Indonesian CSOs as a regional problem and invited all the members of FORUM-ASIA to get involved in the campaign as a form of international solidarity.

Voices from outside of Indonesia

The enthusiasm from many segments of society showed that the public rejection of the law was strong. People from outside Indonesia also became involved. For example, Nalini Elumalai, a prominent human rights defender from Malaysia, whose organisation is also a member of FORUM-ASIA, send the following SMS to the Speaker of House:

‘Att. Mr. Marzuki Ali, we send you this note to voice our opposition towards the Ormas Bill, as it will unduly constrict the space that civil society organisations can operate in and seriously erode the hard-won democratic space that exists in Indonesia today. We therefore urge you to postpone the passage of the Ormas Bill. Thank you for your attention.’ Nalini Elumalai, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), MALAYSIA[3]

However, Marzuki Ali was not open to the participation from the rest of the region. With a narrow definition of sovereignty, Marzuki Ali interpreted the messages from other Asian countries as forms of foreign interference in domestic business. His reply therefore said:

‘This is my country, no one can intervene.’ SMS reply from Marzuki Ali to Nalini.

The involvement from across the region was highlighted by several prominent media. In an interview with Liputan 6, Marzuki said that all the messages that had come from the rest of the region were forms of foreign intervention in
Government affairs. He also stated that many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Indonesia affiliated themselves with foreign agents, as evidenced by this action.

Challenges and opportunities

Marzuki Ali’s statement about the SMS messages, including those sent by foreign citizens, reflected the Government’s perspective that mass organisations, politically active citizens, and critical public opinion are threats. The Government has not been able to see the positive side of the SMS blasts. It has not been able to consider an increase of public participation when it comes to issues of public policy – particularly policies, laws and regulations related to fundamental rights, such as FoAA – as a good thing.

Aside from that, SMS blasts have their own challenges. Some of the lessons we learnt are as follows. Firstly, the words used must be clear and concise, in accordance with the space provided by a text message. The clarity of the message delivered is determined by the choice of words used. Secondly, when an SMS is intended to raise public participation, they need to be followed up by a phone call to make sure the explanation is clear. In the case of a lawsuit on the Election Law, for example, most of the data was identified as incomplete, so to confirm the data was clear it was repeated to the public concerned by phone. Last but not least, SMS blasts are quite expensive. In our case, for example, every message targeted around 9,000 people.

Meanwhile, on the positive side, a few opportunities also need to be highlighted. First, SMS blasts can reach many people who would like to get involved with and participate in an attempt to progress human rights, including those who are and those who are not familiar with social media and the Internet. Second, when it comes to the geographical scope and reach of SMS blasts, including remote areas, other communication methods are less effective. Third, with one message a massive audience can be reached by using a SMS blast.

It is crucial to evaluate tools, such a SMS blast, to determine their role in helping to mainstream human rights in relation to specific public policies or decisions made by policy makers.

The future of SMS blasts

Considering that many CSOs are based in the big cities, SMS blasts can be considered a good alternative to gain wider support from both the people from the periphery areas, as well as from across the border. They present an ability to connect directly with the targeted people. It is an easy way to communicate with people from many different levels in society.

SMS blasts are one of the different communication methods that allow for a massive group of people to be reached all over a country. Something that is very convenient, particularly in such a large country as Indonesia. However, since the development of new technologies is moving faster and faster, in the near future inevitably new technology will replace the conventional SMS blast.

In the end the increase in public participation, as happened in this campaign to reject the Mass Organisation Bill, is what matters. People from the grass-roots, periphery areas, and from across the borders, could all easily participate in this campaign. By using a simple tool, like an SMS message, a local organisation, like KontraS, and a regional network, like FORUM-ASIA, were able to collaborate to promote and protect human rights.


Rei Firda Amalia, International Desk, KontraS, Indonesia

Rei Firdha Amalia works for the International Desk of the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), since March 2013. She studied International Relations and Affairs at Padjadjaran University (Unpad) in Indonesia. Before joining KontraS she worked as Project Officer with KOMDIS Mengajer, Jatinangor.

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