Old laws, new offences
28 Feb 08

President Yudhoyono
The imprisonment of journalist Bersihar Lubis shows how colonial-era laws are being used to stifle historical debate in Indonesia, writes David Jardine

Alarm bells have been ringing among Indonesian media after a late February verdict against Bersihar Lubis, a columnist with the leading Indonesian-language daily Koran Tempo.

Lubis was sentenced to one month in prison for “insulting” state prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office (AGO). In an article he wrote in March last year, he condemned the burning of school history textbooks that offered a different interpretation of the traumatic events of 1965-1966 to the official version first put out by the late ex-President Suharto’s military-based New Order regime.

Lubis described the book-burning state prosecutors as “stupid”. Charges were brought against him under Article 207 of the Indonesian Criminal Code (KHUP). This article, which is derives from the Dutch colonial era Haatzai Artikelen (literally “hate articles”), makes it an offence to “insult in public, either verbally or in writing, a public official or public agency”.

Amongst those sounding the alarm at Lubis’s conviction and sentence has been Endy Bayuni, chief editor of the Jakarta Post, who asked in a vigorous commentary piece if this is what President Yudhoyono was driving at in his recent speech calling for more self-censorship by the media. If so, the editor warned, “We are back where we were 10 years ago”, referring to the stepping aside of Suharto and the opening up of the “reform” period. Put simply, he went on, the verdict could indicate a return of the old climate of fear.

The book burnings that Lubis had objected to were justified on the grounds that the texts were “inaccurate” in their account of the so-called communist coup of 30 September – 1 October 1965, an incoherent affair, which saw the assassination of six army generals, before being put down by Suharto-led forces. These forces then went on a long rampage, killing hundreds of thousands of alleged leftists.

The official version of 30 September is that it was the institutional work of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), a view propagated for 40 or more years in schools, universities and state-controlled television and radio.

The use of Article 207 went ahead, notwithstanding the landmark constitutional court decision of December 2006 that struck down Article 134, which had made it an offence punishable by a prison sentence to insult the president or vice-president. The likelihood now is that Bersihar Lubis’s case will go to the same court, which will then strike down Article 207.

Human rights activists and media workers continue to call for the repeal of all the Dutch-derived “hate articles”. Indonesia’s experience under the presidency of Megawati Soekarnoputri was that a particularly thin-skinned leader was only too happy to invoke them.

David Jardine is a freelance journalist

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.