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Virtual People"s Power Flexes Its Muscle in Indonesia
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent
"Balibo Five" — Defying government censors, activists in Indonesia screened a film in 2009 about the controversial 1975 killings of foreign journalists known as the Balibo Five. But Indonesia's censorship board banned it from public screening.

Even in the best of times and places, democracies are always on trial. Democracy itself is a perpetual experiment whose collective successes and failures amount to some sort of directional trend. That trend is elusive to scrutiny in even the most democratically stable of societies, and trying to do so in a country like Indonesia presents unique challenges.

Over the past two years there has been alarm in civil libertarian camps both inside and outside Indonesia who claim civil liberties are on the backslide in the world’s greatest archipelago. The golden age of reformation following Suharto’s fall in 1998 is being threatened, some say, by a counter reformation from both inside and outside the government.

At the height of reformasi in 2002, Indonesia’s version of a bill of rights was drafted, and signaled a new era of freedom for the people of the world’s fourth largest country. Known as the Second Amendment to the 1945 Constitution, it is a breathtaking document, sweeping in its enumerations and assurances of human freedom. It gives every citizen a right to freedom of religion, belief, expression of thoughts in accordance to conscience, to organize, to assemble, to express opinions, and to communicate and obtain information.

One article in particular answered the recently ended Suharto era of authoritarianism with great force and conviction:

“The right for living, the right for not being tortured, the right for freedom of thought and conscience, religious rights, the right for not being enslaved, the right for being recognized as an individual before the law, and the right for not being prosecuted based on retroactive laws shall be the rights as human they may not be diminished in any situation whatsoever.”

For some reason, this profoundly important document is rarely referred to in the Indonesian press these days. Like a political overdose, it may be that the Second Amendment has yet to be fully absorbed into the political lifeblood of the nation. Still suffering from a well-entrenched system of cronyism and corruption, Indonesia’s young democracy has found it difficult building institutions that are independently strong enough to uphold the Second Amendment’s many guaranteed freedoms when attacked by elite interests. What has been lacking in Indonesia’s government is the political will to adhere to the rule of law as mediated by a judiciary with the backbone to exercise those laws whose precedential use would canonize their importance. If not used, freedoms are lost, and that inevitability is beginning to show. Indonesia’s ideological love of democracy has yet to be matched by a maturity in its political institutions.

But not all political parties in Indonesia- of which there are nearly forty- are whole heartedly behind democratic reforms. As for recent governmental policy initiatives, several laws and regulatory bodies have been created since 2008 that strike a blow to civil rights, especially in terms of censorship.

On the face of things, the rapidly growing list can lead one to assume grim prospects for the future of civil rights in Indonesia. But in some of the most important test cases detailed below, popular opinion as rallied through the networking capabilities of the internet has shown itself to be a force to be reckoned with, and has acted as a surprising countervailing power base against anti-freedom laws in Indonesia’s present day political climate:

Starting in 2008, a bill as proposed by the Ministry of Information was passed outlawing pornography in Indonesia, as supported strongly by a lobby of Islamic interests, including its several political parties. Its many provisions not only outlawed modern forms of pornography as easily accessed on the internet but also threatened traditional performance arts such as certain styles of dancing found in places such as Bali. Within a week of passage, the Balinese governor, I Made Mangku Pastika, a former police chief, vowed, “We cannot implement the law because it isn’t compatible with Balinese philosophy and social values. We urge Balinese to stay calm, alert, and not to be provoked.” (Implicit here is that provincial governors don’t always feel the necessity to tow the Jakartan line, and that is a growing phenomenon of the process of government decentralization.)

The bill is seen as a threat to religious, cultural, and artistic freedom by many. As is too often the case with such legislation in Indonesia, the bill’s real threat was its vagueness. The bill was either poorly written or deliberately made open to interpretation. It did not sufficiently define what constitutes “sexually explicit cultural and artistic material,” or “performances that are obscene or contrary to morality” and in so doing left the door open for interpretation at the hands of authorities whose motivations were to censor anything they felt offensive to their own sensibilities, more often than not religiously based. Partial nudity, for instance, is culturally accepted in some provinces’ traditions of traditional dance and art, as depicted in painting and sculpture even as found in some temple statuary. Under the anti-pornography law, it stands to reason that even an archaeological treasure can be closed down or otherwise banned from public viewing if it showcases a seminude statue. There are many such temples in Bali.

Since the passage of this law- which by the way was supported by the president- its enforcement has been rare. True, on New Years Eve 2010, four young female dancers and two male club managers were detained in Bandung, West Java after authorities accused the dancers of “preparing for a striptease and wearing sexy clothing.” There is also a general crackdown on prostitution going on in Bandung, so the law may have been selectively enforced in order to bolster that greater effort. But a survey of the newspapers has shown that the anti-pornography law itself has yet to be enforced with any zeal or regularity since its passage. So far, the public outcry has been vociferous and widespread enough to deter most would-be prosecutors.

The Information and Electronic Transactions Law (ITE) also passed in 2008 has proved more controversial than the anti-pornography legislation. The law is intended to combat “online crime, pornography, gambling, blackmail, lies, threats and racism.” But it also prohibits citizens from distributing any “defamatory or insulting material electronically.” Even passing on a hyperlink containing defamation is punishable. The law supports defamation law suits in response to any form of print or multimedia piece alleging wrongdoings as committed by an individual, company, or institution. Mere allegations can be considered as libel and defamation of character even without proof being established by a court of law, one way or another. This impinges press freedom and if so found guilty for spreading so-called libel, journalists who so offend can face up to six years imprisonment and a 100,000 USD fine. It effectively cows journalists and even more so, the media owners they work for. Indonesia’s Press Council, among other press organizations, is seeking a review of the law in Constitutional Court.

In the most celebrated of related cases, the drama surrounding a housewife and mother of two best demonstrates both the anti-civil libertarian threats of the ITE law as now put into practice, and the hostile uprising of the public against it as organized by the virtual media.

In early 2009, Prita Mulyasari, a pregnant mother of two was arrested and jailed for libel after she sent twenty friends an email complaining of poor medical treatment in the Omni International Hospital in the wealthy Jakartan suburb of Tangerang. Her complaint was that the hospital misdiagnosed her condition, which Prita had verified by a second medical opinion at another hospital. The private hospital caught wind of Prita’s publicized complaints and filed suit for libel under provisions of the ITE law. Local courts sentenced the woman to pay some 25,000 USD in damages and jailed her as well.

As she languished in prison, a facebook group was formed and nearly 140,000 individuals joined the virtual group in her support. They hit the streets in force, combing the cities and villages of many parts of Indonesia, collecting contributions to pay her fine. Within a very short time they had collected the fine, but the hospital now faced a public relations fiasco which prompted them to waive the money the courts had already awarded them. By the end of 2009, Prita had been acquitted, though the attorney general’s office is still bent on appeal.

The age of virtual social networking had proved itself a potently effective democratic force in Indonesia and for any governmental official still in doubt, the case of Prita Mulyarsi was a revelation. She is currently Indonesia’s reigning national champion for free speech.

Defamation is a particularly sensitive issue in all of Asia, and related laws find there precedence in lese majeste, or “insult laws,” which have traditionally been wielded in the region. Such laws are deemed necessary to preserve stability and protect cultural and religious sensibilities- especially if those the sensibilities belong to a member of the elite or governing class. This is one factor contributing to ASEAN’s overall low rating in the World Press Freedom Index. Indonesia, by the way, is considered by international press professionals as having the freest press within the ASEAN charter of eleven countries.

To the Indonesian government’s credit, commissioner Nurkholis of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) has publicly decried the prosecution of Prita Mulyasari, saying that her case could set a terrible legal precedent and endanger free speech. The commissioner said that Omni hospital overstepped its bounds by criminalizing the case and not restricting it to civil court. The question goes begging, though, as to why an Indonesian criminal court accepted the case when it should have at the very least passed it on to the appropriate venue. Again, Indonesian rule of law in inconsistent and up for arbitrary interpretation and abuse.

The Indonesian press is justifiably threatened by the ITE law as well as civilians such as Prita. The law was proposed by the Ministry of Communications, who have claimed the media is protected under a separate press law, but civil society groups say prosecutors tend to ignore the press law when investigating media-related disputes.

Herein lies the shortcomings of Indonesia’s judicial system: It is too often characterized as a crazy quilt patchwork of contradictory laws, regulation, and ministerial decrees which are selectively used or ignored according to preferential advantage. With no real constitutional adherence in place, there are no legally assured ways of weeding out of parallel sets of laws that contravene each other.

The most recent assault on civil freedoms has come in the form of plans to filter internet content as proposed by the Indonesian Ministry of Communication and Information.

Its Minister, Tifatul Sembiring, was appointed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) after the President’s reelection in April of last year. Previously Sembiring held the leadership post as president of the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS); a pro-Islamic party that has grown in power and now has members as appointed to SBY’s new cabinet as part of a power-sharing, rainbow coalition.

The proposed regulations are in some way a reiteration of both the anti-pornography and ITE laws, but include real censorship. A monitoring committee would determine what online content is to be blocked at the internet service provider level as based on received complaints. Again, the intent is to prohibit the distribution and transmission of pornography and “anything else deemed illegal or immoral.” This is lauded by some as that definition includes gambling and declarations of religious hatred. But “lies and misleading information” would be subject to ban in Indonesia as well. Just who is to determine what exactly is misleading and how can it be proved? Can a web page be pulled before the burden of proof is fulfilled as per due process? And just what is the nature of the due process involved?

Article 8 was especially singled out because it would require providers to “monitor all content contained, transmitted, publicized or stored using their services.” Critics claim that such sweeping powers would kill the country’s information technology industry.

Again, the Ministry of Information and Communications is at the center of a roiling controversy. Along with most of Indonesia’s prominent newspapers, the Indonesian blogosphere and social networking sites of the internet demonstrated quick and violent opposition to the ministry proposals, and within a week’s time of the proposal’s “trial balloon” announcement, there was fallout which even topped the agenda at the most recent president’s meeting with his cabinet. SBY reprimanded the Minister of Information and Communication, Tifatul Sembiring, for making public proposals of such magnitude before ever seeking his approval, reminded him that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are highly prized in Indonesia, and more generally no cabinet minister should cause such a public uproar by making proposals that he, the president, hadn’t ever seen, let alone approved.

Sembiring’s reaction was first to deny being aware of the draft proposal, which implies his subordinates were making decisions without his involvement. On Saturday, February 20th, as he returned from an eight day European visit, Sembiring quickly withdrew the proposal for review. Now there is a growing clamor for his resignation, or better yet, replacement at the behest of the president.

Where virtual politics is concerned, Indonesia’s body of 25 million internet users have been up to the task of protecting their self-interests. In other areas of censorship attack, that self-interest has not so overlapped as a fighting shield. Just recently the government banned a book on the repression of human rights in Papua. The Ministry of Justice and Human Right minster Patrialis Akbar has announced his ministry as recently having judged twenty books to be “very dangerous to the public,” and would recommend they be banned. “Provocative motives to disintegrate the nation” was cited as reason to ban as well. Territorial integrity- as is defamation and saving face- is of great sensitivity in Indonesia.

A film censorship board was established during 2009, and most recently the film “Balibo Five,” was banned from screening in Indonesia. The film is an Australian production which tells the story of six Australian journalists killed during the East Timor conflict. The film depicts their deaths as murders committed by Indonesian security forces and subsequently covered up by the military. The censorship board banned the film at the behest of the Indonesian military, and an army spokesman claimed that the film’s screening in Indonesia would damage Indonesia’s international standing and harm Australia-Indonesian relations.

Yet one more ministry, that of Culture and Tourism has gotten into the censorship game this past year. In September 2009, a bill proposed by that ministry was passed which increases censorship of local film production and limits the distribution of foreign films. With the addition of that bill in place, limits on political and sexual content as well as other controversial topics such as depiction of drug use are now put into place governing the screening of foreign films and the production as well as screening of Indonesian fare.

Before a film can even start production now, an outline has to be submitted to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, who will decide if it meets the “unspecified limits on the representation of drug use, pornography and other provocations.” The minister at that time, Jero Wecik, was quoted as saying, “It is appropriate that films be made without tainting religious values and this will prevent film makers from losing money if they make a film that will be rejected by censors.”

In response, Indonesian film maker Parwez Servia told the Jakarta Globe, “With rules that are set to control both the creative thinkers and business people of the film world, this is the kind of bill that can only be found in socialist and fascist countries.”

Theater film going is no national past time in Indonesia. Even in large metropolitan areas few movie theaters exist in comparison to more developed countries. Indonesians do watch films, of course, but that is restricted mainly to television broadcast- which is self-censored by media owners- and through the ubiquitous distribution of pirated DVD’s. Indonesia’s film makers find themselves with little public support as a result.

Book censorship has yet to draw much attention in Indonesia, too. Most Indonesians are literate, but have yet to embrace book reading in any significant way. Books high cost luxuries hence it is rare to see books displayed in Indonesian households save the richest and most educated of people. University students, academics and other intellectuals do of course read (and write) books, but they are in a distinctly small minority. Middle class people tend to confine their reading to mainly magazines and newspapers while the most popular and hence most available books in the country overall are by far the Al Qur’an and Bible.

Film and book censorship are less felt and less cared about because those media are less enjoyed. Being an Indonesian author or film maker does not necessarily hold revered status in Indonesian society. And controversial subject matter rarely breaks through in book or film form, though George Junus Aditjondro’s recent book “Membongkar Gurita Cikeas” has created quite a stir as it attempts to link SBY and some of his ministers to the recent Bank Century affair which is just one of many scandals that has turned Jakarta into a media circus the past several months.

Aditjondro is a well-respected journalist and sociologist, and somehow has escaped the wrath of Indonesia’s new censorship laws, although he has alleged wrong doing as committed by the government’s highest and most powerful political office holders, including the president, vice-president, and minister of finance. Most likely his arrest would have caused just that much more distraction for the beleaguered president, as no doubt the trial would have been broadcast live, every day. As Aditjondro is articulate and fearless, it would have further injured the now-vulnerable Indonesian executive and its ministries who are beset with a multitude of political scandals.

Television broadcast of court and commission hearings are now common place broadcast television programming, and the inner workings of the central government are becoming more transparent every day.

So the signals given by the government are mixed. But clearly there is a growing tide of censorship in Indonesia, though its standing is not monolithic and is vulnerable to public opinion. Neither is there unanimous support amongst all branches and factions of the government for the censorship measure recently enacted or proposed. Yet the people’s congress has bowed to morality arguments and has passed several anti-civil libertarian laws. In part it reflects the growing ability of pro-Islamic parties to advance their agendas as involve social values and religious morality. Much of that power today resides in the president’s cabinet ministries whose ministers are leaders of Indonesia’s several Islamic parties.

The religious conservatism as found inside and outside the Indonesian government is becoming more aggressive in their political stance vis-à-vis morality as the pop culture influences mushrooming all over Indonesia becomes more entrenched. There is no denying the power of popular culture as inspired in Indonesia by Western music, film, fashion, lifestyle and virtual social networking. That entrenchment is most powerfully made public in blogospheres and virtual social networking, and so pro-Islamic advocates are concentrating their attacks on the internet and electronic multi-media in general. Popular culture advocates have shown in response, though, that they know how to organize and protect their “right to twitter or facebook.”

Indonesia’s burgeoning virtual presence is precursor of an undoubtedly game-changing set of circumstances that will most likely lead to protracted culture wars which will pit conservative religious forces against the rising tide of pop and youth culture.

The Indonesian government understands and fears the potential for destructive social division along these cultural fault lines. Preserving social stability is paramount to their thoughts and actions. They are trying their best to appease both sides. It makes them look both responsive and unresolved simultaneously.

Despite the recent setbacks in civil freedoms, the government’s sensitivity to public opinion is the surest gauge that Indonesian democracy is beginning to stick. Nobody in the central government, no matter how authoritarian their impulse, wants to be singled out as a detractor of civil rights, nor wishes to be accused of being anti-democratic while promoting an atavist, pro-authoritarian agenda. It is political suicide for most. On a national level, the electorate has repeatedly shown it does not support radical intolerance.

Since his reelection in April 2009, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been the target of many personal attacks, much of it in the form of street protests. Recently one group of protestors paraded a water buffalo down a Jakartan thoroughfare and plastered an unflattering image of the president on the beast’s rump. They also carried a sign saying, “the president is slow and stupid like a water buffalo.” In response, the president banned the use of animals in street protests, but not the protests themselves. This incident best represents how the Indonesian government proceeds- slow and careful so as not to overly upset the water buffalo.

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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as an Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls:






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