Indonesia: Sex, lies, and video clips

This week Indonesia was gripped by the appearance of a now-infamous one-minute sex clip that appeared on the Internet. House of Representatives member Muhammad Prakosa must have watched it over and over again: As head of the House's Ethics Council, it's his job to decide whether the man and woman in the video are his fellow honorable members of parliament, as many are claiming.

The Council has yet to announce its finding. Prakoso says he will meet with the two alleged MPs first. This won't happen until the end of recess and the House resumes on May 13. If indeed the two MPs are the couple in the video, they will be fired.

In the meantime, the political rumor mill is already busy. Fingers are pointing at the two representatives from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the country's main opposition party. Last month, the party blocked the government's plan to increase domestic fuel prices.

The way the story has been played up by the website that posted the video suggests a political motive aimed not only at discrediting the PDI-P, but also at destroying the careers of the two politicians. Somehow the video clip managed to slip past the Internet censor -- despite the government's efforts to scrub pornographic materials from the Internet.

It's difficult for public figures in Indonesia to survive a sex scandal, especially when videos of their hijinks are circulated in public. In the previous government of 2004-2009, two House members lost their jobs after videos showing them in compromising sexual positions went viral. In 2011, a member of the Islamist Justice and Welfare Party (PKS) survived a public shaming after he was caught watching porn clips on his iPad during a plenary session. The pressure and shame after the ordeal became too heavy, however, and he voluntarily resigned even though his party had come to his defense.

These people can count themselves lucky that they only lost their political careers. The Anti-Pornography Law and the Electronic Information and Transaction Law, both enacted in 2008, seek to clamp down on pornography, including on the Internet. Infringement entails severe punishment.

Singer/songwriter Nazriel Irham, more popularly known by his stage name Ariel Peterpan, received a 42-month prison sentence after a video of him having sex with his celebrity girlfriends circulated online in 2010. (His reaction to the verdict captured in the image above.) Ariel "Peterporn," as the media dubbed him, was found guilty for storing and distributing the video, considered an offense under the 2008 Pornography Law.

Just exactly how low politicians will go to discredit their opponents is anybody's guess. With a little help from the internet, politics in Indonesia has just gotten a little bit dirtier.


Democracy Lab

Uganda's up-and-coming tech guru

In last week's paper, I was delighted to come across a profile of Abdu Ssekalala, a young and upcoming software development engineer at Makerere University's school of Computing and Informatics Technology (CIT). The article credits Ssekalala with developing nine internationally recognized mobile phone applications. His most successful application is Wordbook, a dictionary application that provides its user with a randomly chosen word of the day, including definitions, examples, and a selection of related words. The app costs the equivalent of $1.25 per download, and it's been downloaded over 300,000 times on the Nokia Ovi store.

I spent last fall taking courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and I couldn't help noticing the relative paucity of African tech developers there. Most of the non-U.S. students came from Asia. During my stay in Cambridge I was also struck by Soledad O'Brien's October show on CNN, Black in America: The New Silicon Valley. It followed eight African-American tech entrepreneurs who are trying to build names for themselves in Silicon Valley. The show sought to explore why black tech entrepreneurs haven't featured much in Silicon Valley's success story.

It reminded me of some of the discussions of similar topics back home. We, too, have been asking questions about the lack of innovation in Uganda and the support for such initiatives. Stories like Ssekalala's show that once young tech brains get the right training, support, and opportunities, they can compete ably with their counterparts in the rest of the world.

Here's a passage in the article that caught my attention:

Sekalala got his break when Nokia, an international mobile phone company organized a special training session to help software developers hone their skills. The training in April and May last year presented a major break for the young man, whose application has crossed quarter a million hits so far.

While Sekalala's success has excited his colleagues and trainers at Makerere, the challenge is where he will manage to control the excitement and keep focused. Sekalala says this is exactly what he is gunning for. Software development has lately become an a global hit to make dollar millionaires and billionaires with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg founder of the social networking site Facebook, which he founded with colleagues while a student at Harvard in 2004. At age 27, Zuckerberg is already worth $17 billion (one and a half times bigger than the entire Ugandan budget for last year) [sic].

Can Ssekalala become Uganda's Zuckerberg? I don't see why not. The market for mobile phone apps is huge and growing. Over the past decade the number of phone owners in East Africa has exploded. Creating software for these phones is a business that knows few borders. And programmers like Ssekalala understand the needs of this market and how to meet them.

Not that long ago we would have been relying on other parts of the world to provide us with such services. But Ssekalala's story shows us that Ugandans are now doing this themselves.