08 Januari 2010

Commentary: Book bans, lawsuits … and your freedom of speech is next

Published on The Jakarta Post (http://www.thejakartapost.com)

M. Taufiqurrahman , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Fri, 01/08/2010 8:59 AM | Headlines

The title of this article will undoubtedly sound alarming to many. What could go wrong? After all, isn’t this probably the only country in Southeast Asia that has a robust democracy with one of the freest presses in the world?

But in recent days, we have learned the hard way that even in a free society like ours, freedom of expression ought not to be taken for granted and that it should be earned and fought for, in the face of encroachment by those two Leviathans, the state and profit-seeking entities.

The hullabaloo over George Junus Aditjondro’s new book Membongkar Gurita Cikeas — Dibalik Skandal Bank Century (Unmasking the Cikeas Octopus – Behind the Bank Century Scandal) gives us a valuable lesson that when it comes to speaking truth to power, there will never be an easy path.

Some readers may be dissatisfied with George’s less-than-stellar presentation of the facts — his excessive use of secondary sources for instance — but that should not distract us from his primary objective of making government officials answerable to the people.

Only a little more than a decade ago we had a regime that wielded absolute power and that was by nature corrupt to the core, so it is better for us to always keep in mind Lord Acton’s famous truism that power tends to corrupt and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And before the current government gets more corrupt — remember the current government has more than four years to go — we need more publications that will expose the state’s ill intentions and machinations.

The government may have yet to slap a ban on George’s book, but we should not be convinced that freedom of speech is fully guaranteed already. In fact, we have every reason to believe the contrary.

After all, copies of George’s book have reportedly gone missing from bookstores in Jakarta.

In recent months, we have also learned that the ghost of our authoritarian past has crept back in.

On Dec. 23, the Attorney General’s Office carried on the tradition of the New Order regime of banning books for reasons customarily bandied around by the authoritarian regime — that the publication of such books will compromise the state ideology.

The only reason the AGO imposed a ban on John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30 Movement and Soeharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia was that the book challenges the state-sponsored narrative by arguing that Soeharto cunningly used an insignificant power struggle within the military to justify a purge against the communists.

We can also safely assume that the reason behind another ban on Lekra Tak Membakar Buku: Suara Senyap Lembar Kebudayaan Harian Rakjat 1950–1965 (Lekra Never Burned Books: Muffled Voices from People’s Daily Cultural Supplement 1950–1965) was that this book cast a positive light on the leftist-leaning cultural organization Lekra, which was demonized by the New Order.

The other entity that we should be worried about for its tendency to thwart our freedom of expression is the business community which, following no logic but its own, has shown itself more than happy to dispense with freedom of speech.

The prosecution of Prita Mulyasari for criticizing a private business simply in her blog, no less, gives us a painful lesson that in an effort to protect the integrity of its brand, a business can go the extra mile to silence your voice.

But the most outrageous example of efforts to put a limit on our freedom of speech was the one recently launched by the coterie of gossip journalists — abetted by the Indonesian Journalists Association (PWI), a moribund organization left over from the Soeharto authoritarian regime — to criminalize model Luna Maya for her comment on Twitter likening entertainment journalists to prostitutes and saying that they should burn in hell.

The whole saga over Luna Maya smacks of a bitter twist of irony as a lawsuit aimed at punishing what could be seen as the celebrity’s right to free speech was launched by journalists, of all people.

But I suppose that the entertainment journalists don’t have the serious credentials necessary to become full members of the revered club of the press and remain content to be consigned to be the tit-bit spare parts of the tittle-tattle section of the television industry, which caters to our primeval instincts to gossip and spread lies and rumors. And this industry will do just about anything, such as bullying its sources, to protect their free access to every celebrity’s bedroom and kitchen table without any obstruction.

This club of journalists is not only unwilling to speak painful truths to the public about our society, but in fact is complicit in offering superficiality and simplistic reportage, problems that hinder the creation of a free and frank press, the fourth estate of a robust democracy.

The presence of the entertainment journalist is the consequence of the freedom of press that we have and it is indeed a bad consequence of it. But as Albert Camus said in his collection of essays,

Resistance, Rebellion and Death: A free press can of course be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom it will never be anything but bad.

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