INDONESIA: Censorship of books, movies and internet use blocks discussions on impunity

INDONESIA: Censorship of books, movies and internet use blocks discussions on impunity
A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission, March 16th 2010

The banning of books by the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) and the withdrawal of movies by the Film Censorship Board (LSF) in the name of public order and state unity are unacceptable, as they contribute to the culture of impunity in Indonesia and are a serious attack on the freedom of expression. Without discussing human rights violations and in particular gross violations of human rights in writings and without allowing the public documentation of crimes against humanity, overcoming the past and establishing truth will not be possible. Without truth finding and a public dialogue that break the taboo of crimes committed by the military, the ongoing cycle of impunity cannot be ended.

On December 23, 2009, the Attorney General’s Office announced the banning of five books. Suara Gereja bagi Umat Tertindas Penderitaan Tetesan Darah dan Cucuran Air Mata Umat Tuhan di Papua Barat Harus Diakhiri (The Voice of the Church for the Suffering of the Oppressed: The Spilling of Blood and Tears of God’s People in Papua Must Be Ended) by Cocratez Sofyan Yoman, Enam Jalan Menuju Tuhan (Six Roads to God) by Darmawan, Mengungkap Misteri Keberagaman Agama (Explaining the Mysteries of Religious Diversity) by Syahrudin Ahmad, Dalih Pembunuhan Massa Gerakan 30 September dan Kudeta Soeharto (Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30 Movement and Suharto’s Coup) by John Roosa and Lekra Tak Membakar Buku: Suara Senyap Lembar Kebudayaan Harian Rakjat 1950-1965 (Lekra Did Not Burn Books: The Silent Voice of the Cultural Pages of the Peoples Daily, 1950-65) by Rhoma Dwi Aria Yuliantri and Muhidin M. Dahlan were thus forbidden in Indonesia.

According to Attorney-General Hendarman Supandji, these books could "erode public confidence in the government, cause moral decadence or disturb the national ideology, economy, culture and security". In Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30 Movement and Suharto’s Coup, Canadian Dr. John Roosa analyzes the 30th September Movement and explains how it led to mass killings and the overthrow of President Sukarno. In 1965, a rumor spread that a secret communist movement was plotting to overthrow President Sukarno. General Suharto took command of the army and called for a campaign against communist suspects, which led to the killings of thousands of ordinary Indonesians and Suharto's seizure of power.

Over 40 years later, Roosa's analysis thus goes against official history. The other banned books also contradict the state's doctrine and dare tackling controversial issues such as religious diversity or Papua's political status.

Likewise, several films have recently been banned by the Film Censorship Board (LSF). Three documentary films about Timor Leste – Timor Loro Sae, Tales for Crocodiles, and Passabe – and one film about Aceh were not allowed to be screened at the 8th Jakarta International Film Festival (JIFFest). The movies about Timor were said to be likely to "open up old wounds and create social unrest."

More recently, the Australian movie Balibo was banned from Indonesian theaters. Mukhlis Paeni, head of LSF, said the movie was politically dangerous. It depicts the murder of five Australian journalists by the Indonesian army during the invasion of Timor in 1975. This contradicts the official version according to which the five men were killed in crossfire. "Let's sit together and think about the future, not look back at the past,'' Paeni told local news portal VIVANews. "Dwelling on the past would only create commotion'', he added.

Most of the banning of books and movies in Indonesia are based on the alleged risk to "disturb public order" or threaten "state unity". This way, the government and the powerful army can avoid embarrassing explanations about past scandals or human rights violations.

The banning relies on several laws, notably the under-Sukarno enacted law on Printed Material Pacification that gives the AGO the power to ban books in order to protect public order. Article 28J, paragraph 2 of the Indonesian Constitution also mentions the "restrictions established by law for the sole purposes of guaranteeing the recognition and respect of the rights and freedoms of others and of satisfying just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security and public order in a democratic society."

However, this raises two main issues. First, there is no proper system of check and balances to control the AGO and the LSF’s decisions. The LSF dates back to the Dutch colonial period and now comprises of 45 members from nine ministries, religious organizations, the military, the police and the National Intelligence Agency. Its decisions are never transparent and often influenced by religious groups or the military. A better accountability should be the first step towards a more democratic censorship process.

Secondly, the notion of "public order" remains unclear and seems to be misused in order to prevent the government from critics. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) accepts restrictions on the freedom of expression if they are provided by law and are necessary "for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals" (article 19 ICCPR). Moreover, the United Nation's Siracusa Principles define "public order" as the "sum of rules which ensure the functioning of society or the set of fundamental principles on which society is founded." Consequently, a book or a movie that would foster hatred or violence could be banned. However, the Siracusa Principles explicitly consider respect for human rights as a part of public order. Therefore, national safety should not overshadow fundamental freedoms and justice.

In Indonesia, "public order" and "state unity" are used as excuses to remain silent about past human rights violations and abuses, especially those committed by the powerful military. The 30th September Movement and the killings in Balibo are two examples; others are the many abuses, extra-judicial killings or torture cases that took place in Tanjung Priok, in Talangsari or in Papua. The culture of impunity remains very powerful about all these human rights violations and it can be asserted that it is partly due to the banning of any book or movie that would dare contradict the state's official version.

The internet is intended as a free media for all opinions including for dissent voices and it has to be free in the sake of truth and to discuss such violations. However, the government also exercises a very strict control of internet content through the Act on Electronic Information and Transaction (no. 11/2008). Human rights activists and journalists who denounced this law are especially concerned by article 27 that states that anyone distributing and/or transmitting and/or creating access to defamatory electronic document and/or information with or without any intention will face 6 years in prison. This law is more severe than the Indonesian Penal Code, which in article 27 regarding defamation does not require defamation to be committed in public in order to punish it and it does not limit the target of defamation to individuals or lawful institutions.

Individuals who are writing critically about the government on the internet – or simply in a private email – can thus be accused of defamation and face a 6-years jail sentence.

The limitation of freedom of expression does not only concern academics, writers, journalists or directors, but also individuals in the private sphere. It is particularly worrying in terms of human rights as these restrictions clearly come from stakeholders that have interests in the culture of impunity that still reigns in Indonesia. As asserted by the ICCPR, censorship is sometimes necessary in a democracy, but it must be implemented through a publicly accountable process and fully independent agency. It may only be used to protect a rule of law based democratic order in a state and thus to protect the fundamental rights of others.

In its efforts towards democratic reforms, the Indonesian government should assert the importance of freedom of expression and freedom of the press as some of the most fundamental rights that a democratic state should provide for its people. Moreover, the strong and undemocratic censorship should be replaced by the acknowledgement of past abuses and the punishment of those responsible. These are necessary steps towards public order and social justice.