JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s thought police are attempting a comeback.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration, in fact, launched a surprising new offensive on free speech last year with an intensity not seen since the Suharto regime, which brutally ruled Indonesia for more than 30 years before being toppled in 1998.
Such autocratic restrictions returned to the public’s radar in December when the Jakarta Foreign Correspondent’s Club canceled a screening of the film "Balibo" — which depicts the 1975 killing of five Australian journalists by the Indonesian military in East Timor — for fear of legal reprisals after being told that authorities had banned the film.
The government’s growing penchant for the blacklist contrasts starkly with Indonesia's ferociously free press, possibly the most unfettered in Southeast Asia. That freedom was on display as nearly every newspaper, television and magazine organization in the country derided the censor’s decision to ban "Balibo."
The Indonesian Journalist’s Association openly defied the order, organizing dozens of screenings using text messages and social networking. Copies of the film are also easily found at numerous pirate DVD outlets around the capital Jakarta and clips are widely available on the web.
“There is no point in banning anything these days,” said Anhor Gonggong, a professor of history at the University of Indonesia who has spent a lifetime fighting censorship. “There is no use. If a film is banned we can still find it. If bookstores don’t carry a banned book, we can easily read it online. It’s no problem.”
Not that the government isn’t trying.
A new film law passed last September requires producers to now submit their scripts to a committee of red pens before shooting can begin. Even “slasher” films are getting slashed. The directors of the internationally acclaimed gore fest, “Rumah Dara (Dara’s House),” said the censors forced them to cut several particularly gruesome closeups.
But censors have been the most busy with the oldest of old media — books. More than 200 books are now listed as banned. After Suharto’s ouster, some books, including ones by celebrated Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, were taken off the blacklist and the practice in general nearly ceased. Between 2002 and 2008, the government banned only six books in total.
Five books were banned, by contrast, in 2009 alone.
Several more could meet the same fate within weeks, according Didiek Darmanto, a spokesman for the attorney general. And Patrialis Akbar, the minister for justice and human rights, with no hint of irony, said his department had suggested the attorney general ban another 20 books it deemed inflammatory.
All circulated media falls under the purview of the censors, including internet websites, Darmanto said. The two censorship boards (a collection of officials from departments like education, religion, police and national intelligence) refer to a law passed in 1963 to determine what should be blacklisted.
“Anything that can disturb the public order can be banned from circulation,” Darmanto said in an interview.
He said items that contradict the country’s national development plan, spread concepts of Marxism, Leninism or communism, disparage the nation or national leadership, degrade morals (such as pornography), are anti-religion or disgrace any of the religions permitted in Indonesia or oppose an ethnic group or custom, could disturb the public order.
One recently banned book, which is easily available from any number of street-side booksellers, recounts the still mysterious ascendancy of Suharto in 1965 to when he became president in 1967. Others discuss religious pluralism. A book about the 1970s leftist organization known as Lekra, called “Lekra Doesn’t Burn Books,” was also recently banned, though not yet burned.
Facing criticism for the recent spike in censorship, the president pointed to the free press in his defense but warned a group of students last week that their freedom was “not unlimited.”
Activists said the administration’s recent effort to control information has revealed its inability to move fully beyond the Suharto-era culture of repression they grew up in.
“The government is stuck in the past,” said Gonggong. “Banning books, that is not democratic. That is authoritarian. The government can’t have it both ways. We are free enough now that if they want to practice that sort authoritarian behavior, we will scream.”