Tag Archives: free speech

On this day remember: Zhao Ziyang

Addressing the students - AFP

Zhao Ziyang was a senior member of the Chinese politburo and Communist Party chief, a reformist who campaigned hard against corruption and a supporter of dialogue with students leaders during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. He famously told the students: “You are not like us, we are already old, it doesn’t matter to us any more”. As the Party declared martial law and sent in the tanks to crush the pro-democracy uprising, Zhao was placed under house arrest. He remained incarcerated and shunned by the Party until his death aged 85 from pneumonia on January 17, 2005.


Brazilian atheists have a message for Indonesia

"If god exists, everything is permitted"

This powerful advertisement commissioned by a Brazilian atheist group sums up, in one slogan, what is happening with religious bigotry, persecution and violence against the Ahmadiyah community in Indonesia at the moment.

Last month a court gave sentences of 3-6 months’ jail to 12 Sunni Muslim thugs who led a lynch mob of around 1,500 armed extremists against about 20 members of the Ahmadiyah sect, who are Muslims in every sense of the word except they don’t believe Mohammed was the final prophet. In the eyes of the Indonesian courts, this means you can kill them in front of police and receive less punishment than you would for stealing someone’s buffalo or making a naughty video of yourself with your girlfriend.

Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa put his Cambridge masters degree in philosophy to good use on Friday, cynically inverting logic and ethics in justification of the sentences. He said the judiciary’s independence could not be questioned (ignoring that laws such as prohibitions against murder are created by parliament to be enforced) and noted that Indonesia was not the only country to experience “heinous” acts as a result of religious intolerance (ignoring the fact that heinous acts which go unpunished are likely to be repeated).

Sadly, there are “still places” like Indonesia

I had to laugh when I read the following line in this wonderful piece by Andrew Copson in The Guardian: “There are still places where it is illegal to declare yourself as non-religious on your identity papers or official records”.

Yes unfortunately there are still such places, and at least one of them is  Indonesia, that mainly Muslim country which US President Barack Obama recently lauded as a model of tolerance and pluralism. In Indonesia it is impossible to have a legal identity if you are an atheist – you must state your adherence to one of six “religions”. I put that word in commas because the rules bizarrely rank Catholicism and Protestantism as separate religions. The others are Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism (a religion?) and Hinduism. Any alternative beliefs, including the various other branches of Christianity, are invalid and followers of those beliefs are ineligible for ID documents.

I laughed because Indonesia is so desperate to be seen as a powerful, moderate and modern country, yet in fact on so many levels it ranks as one of those unmentionable places that still has such backward laws on its books.

Of course, Indonesia isn’t the only place in the world where religion reigns mightily over reason. Witness the madness being committed in the name of religion in Afghanistan now, with the killings of innocent people in response to a US pastor’s provocative and stupid burning of a copy of the Koran in far-away Florida. In this foul, depressing atmosphere it’s so nice to read a piece of free-thinking such as Copson’s article.

Copson points out that 2011 is the 200th anniversary of Oxford university’s expulsion of the poet Shelley for his publication of a tract arguing the “Necessity of Atheism”.

Today in Britain, non-religious people are not thrown out of universities because they don’t believe in God, but in other parts of the world many suffer this fate – and worse. There are still places where it is illegal to declare yourself as non-religious on your identity papers or official records.

One of the most upsetting stories I was ever told was by a young humanist from Saudi Arabia who grew up so frightened of what would happen if he spoke out loud about his beliefs to another person that the only outlet for his thoughts was to go on long walks away from all people, and speak his mind only to the air. In fact, he never spoke to another human being about his most fundamental beliefs until coming to Britain in his late 20s, and experiencing then for the first time what those of us who live in freedom take for granted: the joyful dynamic of testing and developing our own ideas in conversation and dialogue with others.

In this country the blasphemy laws have been abolished, but elsewhere our fellow men and women face death for speaking and thinking freely.

Indonesia has not yet made blasphemy a capital crime, but some fear it is heading down that road. And anyway Indonesians “face death for speaking and thinking freely”, either at the hands of fanatics for their religious views or at the hands of the security forces for their political ones.

Old guard vs new in Indonesia’s Wikileaks washup

The Wikileaks cables revealing the United States is privy to serious allegations of abuse of power and potential corruption by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have, as expected, stirred up a storm of reactions, counter-allegations, conspiracy theories and recriminations.

As the feathers continue to fly, the roosters seem to fall into two breeds: those who claim the allegations are nothing important and seek to malign the messenger (in this case Wikileaks and the Australian papers which published the leaked cables); and those who say the allegations need to be investigated.

Just to recap, according to The Sydney Morning Helald (part of the Fairfax media group which gained exclusive access to the cables from Wikileaks), the allegations are that Yudhoyono “blocked a corruption investigation into a political powerbroker, Taufik Kiemas, used the intelligence services to spy on rivals and received funding from the controversial businessman Tomy Winata via a middleman”.

They also claim that first lady Kristiani Herawati sought to “profit personally by acting as a broker or facilitator for business ventures”. Yudhoyno’s former vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, a rich businessman and powerbroker, is also accused of buying influence with thick wads of cash. The allegations come from Indonesian political sources, including one who is close to Yudhoyono.

The government has issued a blanket denial and dragged the US ambassador, Scot Marciel, before the media to apologise. He dutifully did so, in what can only be described as a public humiliation. In doing so he threw out any claims he has to care about corruption in Indonesia and the freedom of the press.

That’s all entirely – if sadly – predictable. President SBY, after all, has a notoriously thin hide and an equally feeble grasp of the benefit of press freedom and free speech.

But some of the other sources of indignation and denial have been less predictable, though possibly not surprising.

Veteran Jakarta-based correspondent John McBeth, writing in The Straits Times, says the cables “only report  rumours” about the “untainted” president, and offer “little in the way of evidence”. McBeth is close to many a “senior government official”, and quotes one saying that what looks like corruption from the outside isn’t corruption at all to an Indonesian. It’s all about the “culture,” you see.

“In our culture there is often a wide grey area and sometimes decisions are based on political realities,” the official explains.

McBeth then attacks the messengers, both Wikileaks in the form of Julian Assange, and Fairfax papers The Age and The SMH which he says “never cut Jakarta much slack”. He puts this down to a kind of vendetta stemming from resentment over the killing of five Australian-based journalists by Indonesian troops in the former East Timor in 1975. His evidence to back this conspiracy theory is sparse to say the least. (Indonesia denies this crime as well, of course.)

Joining him in the same conspiratorial camp is a gentleman by the name of Habiburokhman, a lawyer, who told The Jakarta Post that the allegations are pay-back by Australia for Indonesia’s plans to limit live beef imports from the country.

His clients are in the shoot-the-messenger camp. Officials from Indonesia’s Federation of National Enterprise United Workers Union have filed a suit in a Jakarta court claiming $1 billion in damages from the newspapers for allegedly “ruining the pride of a nation.” Given the gangster-style legal system in Indonesia, they might actually win.

The Jakarta Globe, which campaigns against corrupt junior officials with an invigorating zeal, seems to have lost its enthusiasm for the vice and virtue angle of the Wikileaks allegations against Yudhoyono. An editorial published in the aftermath of the explosive cables read more like a PR firm’s advice to the president on how to limit the damage than an indignant newspaper’s demand for transparency and justice.

So, there are plenty of people in the shoot-the-messenger and conspiracy-theory camps, but who is in the indignant anti-corruption camp? I can’t find too many.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) – the country’s main corruption-fighting organ – has quickly hosed down any suggestion it is going to touch the allegations. It response seems to be – not with a 10-foot pole!

So we turn again to the little guys, the anti-corruption activists, to take up the banner.  Independent watchdog Petisi 28 has lodged a request for a formal investigation into the allegations. “It is time for the president to clarify the reports by submitting himself to the legal process. If the president is not guilty, he should be brave enough to allow the KPK to investigate him,” said the group’s leader.

And there’s the Fairfax papers themselves. They’re sticking to their guns, apparently unswayed by McBeth’s scorn and threats of billion-dollar lawsuits.  Here’s how The Age responded to its critics in an editorial today:

It is important to note that this is not a case of a single document containing accusations from a rogue source; rather, our reporting is based on numerous cables over several years that detail information gathered by senior US diplomats from a range of well-placed contacts.

The Age does not presume to stand in judgment of Dr Yudhoyono on the matters raised in the previously secret cables, but nor do we apologise for exposing them and him to the harsh light of public scrutiny. Whatever else the cables show, they suggest that the so-called new Indonesia – free of the corrupt culture that poisoned the country’s political, military and judicial institutions through and beyond the Suharto era – remains elusive.

I know which argument makes more sense to me. How about you?

(Photo courtesy of Corvair via flickr)

Indonesian police want courts to save their bacon

Calling a police officer a ‘pig’ isn’t usually a very smart idea in any country, but in a country like Indonesia – where pigs are religiously maligned animals and the police are widely known to practise torture  – it’s even dumber.

But what if you are a journalist or blogger who is writing about an official report that suggested dishonest officers might be stuffing their loot into fat bank accounts, and in your headline or accompanying art you refer to “piggy banks”? It’s not really the same thing as calling the police “pigs”, is it?

Unfortunately for respected news weekly Tempo, that’s not how the Indonesian police see things. The police think a piggy bank is the same as a pig, and they have vowed to sue the magazine. The alleged offence came on the front cover of last week’s edition, which depicted a well-proportioned (and all-too human) police officer taking a walk with three precocious little piggy banks on leashes of yellow crime scene tape.

The story was about allegations that several top police generals have millions of dollars in ill-gotten loot stuffed into their bank accounts. President Yudhoyono has urged the police to investigate the allegations.

Given the long history of such allegations and persistent reports of police being involved in all sorts of rackets, it’s hardly surprising that they would be a little defensive. But they appear to be far more worried about being called pigs than about being called thoroughly and blatantly corrupt.

Tempo has even suggested that undercover police were the mysterious buyers who appeared at distribution depots in the middle of the night to snap up hundreds of copies of the printed magazine before it could reach newsstands.

So whatever you do, don’t call the Indonesian police a bunch of pigs because that will upset them and you could get sued and go to jail. And don’t even suggest they use piggy banks either, because that’s just so hurtful and unkind and if you did that you would deserve to go to jail as well, under laws that make it an offence to insult a government institution.

As the police chief, General Bambang Hendarso Danuri, said last week:

The fact that we are illustrated as pigs hurts us a lot. Don’t illustrate us like that. We’ll try to prevent our personnel from being angry because they were illustrated as pigs, which is haram (forbidden). This will definitely provoke our personnel.

He’s almost encouraging police to be provoked and angry. The fact remains for all to see, however, that Tempo did not refer to the police as pigs or even compare them to pigs.

The offending cover was not available on Tempo’s website on Monday, but the subsequent English language edition was. Some say it is even harsher than the original, placing the piggy bank directly over the officer’s face. I would reprint it here but I’m afraid of being thrown in jail.

Either way, the whole episode is another sad example of what Indonesian journalist Taufik Darusman called the “perverse sense of entitlement” that characterises police culture in what is often called the world’s third-biggest democracy. He notes that an official body made similar allegations in 2005 but police did nothing about them because of a “lack of supporting data”.

It’s also another perfect illustration of the way powerful interests and institutions are using criminal and civil libel laws to threaten, intimidate and – even if they fail to prove their allegations in court – silence critics and whistleblowers. I’ve blogged about it before and it’s been well documented by Human Rights Watch and others.

This is what Human Rights Watch Asia advocacy director Sophie Richardson had to say about it:

The decision by the police to file a criminal complaint against Tempo makes it clear that despite their claims to reform, many government officials and institutions in Indonesia, including the police, are unwilling to tolerate healthy criticism and public accountability.  The claim that their objection relates to the magazine’s cover art rather than the content of the article alleging corruption in the police force is ultimately irrelevant.

Rather than responding proactively to allegations of corruption within the Indonesian police force by launching an investigation, the police have chosen to attack a highly respected media outlet with criminal charges.  To make matters worse, officials from the very institution that filed the criminal claim against Tempo will be responsible for investigating it.  This poses a serious conflict of interest and calls into question the ability of the police to conduct an impartial investigation.

As we have seen again and again, as long as Indonesia’s criminal defamation laws remain valid, they will be open for use as a tool of retaliation by public officials against those who criticize them.  Even if Tempo eventually prevails against the police in court, filing of this claim by the police will deter would-be whistleblowers from coming forward with evidence of corruption by the police or other officials in the future.

President Yudhoyono should recognize that the filing of criminal defamation claims by government institutions accused of wrongdoing has detrimental consequences for the rule of law and freedom of expression in Indonesia and calls into question his commitment to eradicating pervasive corruption.

The problem is that Yudhoyono doesn’t seem to have the power or courage to take on the police. On one hand he admits that the country’s legal system is run by a “court mafia” including police and prosecutors, but on the other he trusts the police to investigate alleged large-scale corruption by senior officers.

Pigs might fly.

(Photo courtesy of yoppy via flickr)

HRW says political prisoners are ‘ugly stain’ on Indonesia

A new report by Human Rights Watch has laid out some sobering facts about Indonesia’s political prisoners. The watchdog reckons there are about 100 mainly Papuan and Moluccan activists behind bars across the country, and most of them have suffered some kind of abuse or torture. Their crime is often nothing more than waving a banned separatist symbol, like Papuan Morning Star or Moluccan RMS  flags.

“Imprisoning activists for peacefully voicing their political views is an ugly stain on Indonesia’s recent improvements in human rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“It’s out of step with Indonesians’ growing aspirations as a democratic and rights-respecting country.”

Cases of the 10 most prominent of the prisoners interviewed also uncovered other problems that the authorities need to address, Human Rights Watch said. These include denial of adequate medical services, the use of long-distance prison transfers from Ambon to Java to isolate prisoners far from their family and community, and poor prison conditions.

Human Rights Watch urged President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to drop all charges and order the release of all political prisoners, revoke provisions of the 2007 regulation banning peaceful display of symbols, and take additional steps to enhance the rule of law. Other concerned governments have important roles to play to monitor the situation of Indonesia’s political prisoners, especially those who have suffered torture and ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said. The EU should publicly raise their concerns about these cases and the underlying laws during the human rights dialogue, the first between the EU and Indonesia.

Remember these political prisoners — men like Buchtar Tabuni, Filep Karma and Ruben Saiya — when you see President Yudhoyono strutting around the upcoming G20 meeting in Canada.

An Ambonese villager, Ruben Saiya’s crime was to unfurl an RMS flag while performing a traditional dance in front of Yudhoyono in 2007. So much for presidential mercy.

Indonesia expels French journalist on arrival in Papua

Veteran French journalist and filmmaker Baudouin Koenig has expressed outrage at his treatment by the Indonesian government, which is desperate to hide its human rights abuses and, some say, genocide in Papua.

Koenig and his team arrived in the Papuan capital Jayapura on Tuesday morning having obtained permission to visit the province, where journalists and human rights workers are normally banned. He was arrested on his way from the airport to the hotel after he stopped to film a peaceful demonstration. Interrogated for six hours, his group was sent to Jakarta and now face expulsion and blacklisting.

So much for Indonesia’s vaunted free press. If anyone tries to tell you the media is free in this country, don’t believe them.

In a hastily-written press release, Koenig says he spent months going through the official channels (including the French embassy) to get permits to film in the province. He says he had an Indonesian Press Card and a Press Visa.

I came in Papua to film the Census and the process of dialogue opened 10 days ago by minister of Human rights and people like the priest Nelles Tubay involved in this process (the reason I decided to go to Jayapura, was to make an interview with him).

I arrived yesterday morning to Jayapura, after a long trip from Kalimantan and without having slept. The plan was to go to the hotel, to rest and wait the guide of film and television department supposed to arrive from Bali in the evening.

My only fault was to cross a demonstration on the way to the hotel. As any journalist, I stopped the car I have begun to film. (I should have waited the arriving of the guide!)

Can anybody, after having experienced the press freedom in all the rest of Indonesia, believe that filming a peace-full demonstration can be a crime?

And if I didn’t think that it’s not a normal way to work in Indonesia, why did I film in front of the police? With a big and visible HD camera!

The problem is that Indonesia is doing a lot of nasty things in Papua and it doesn’t want the world, or even its own people, to know. The Javanese are robbing the region of its vast natural resources and leaving indigenous Melanesian Papuans with the crumbs. Anyone who complains is locked up. Merely raising the Morning Star separatist flag is punishable with long prison sentences.

The latest (uncensored) reports from the province indicate a new military operation is underway, involving raping and killing of villagers:

There are fears of an escalating humanitarian crisis today as news broke that Indonesian military are launching new sweeping operations in the Mulia region of the highlands. 6 people are so far confirmed dead, and 3 women raped by Indonesian military around the village of Tinginnambut, as Indonesian troops step up their efforts to find Free Papua rebel leader Goliath Tabuni. Villagers are now reported to be hiding in the jungle.

We appeal to the United Nations to intervene and send peacekeepers to the region. We have suffered for too long now. Please hear our cries for help.

It’s impossible for anyone to independently confirm that report – because independent reporters aren’t allowed into Papua to do such stories. The United Nations, of course, will do nothing.

To give an idea of the money Jakarta is making while it keeps Papuans poor and under its jackboot, from 1992 to March 2010 Freeport Indonesia, the subsidiary of US company Freeport McMoRan which operates the world’s biggest gold mine in the Papuan highlands, paid $9.7 billion in taxes and dividends to the Indonesian government.

As President Obama prepares to visit Indonesia next month, he might want to think about the Papuans. There’s a big danger that the trip will turn into a sentimental photo op designed to curry favour with Southeast Asia and the Muslim world, rather than a substantive effort to push Indonesia further along the path of reform in areas like Papua and deforestation.

Most of the US press will be obsessed with the picture stories about Obama’s childhood in Jakarta. I wonder how many will follow in Koenig’s footsteps and try to report on the situation in Papua, or the Moluccas for that matter (where separatist flag-wavers are also thrown in jail). After this latest fiasco, not many will take the risk.

Just a few words from Obama could ruin all of Indonesia’s sinister attempts to gag journalists and aid workers and help to expose the true tragedy of Papua and West Papua.