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Indonesia Reverses Law Banning Books

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Indonesia's Constitutional Court has reversed a law that gave the attorney general's Office the power to ban books. Rights activists and authors hail the verdict as a victory for free expression, but some officials say curbs on free speech are still necessary in this young democracy.

Indonesia has become one of Southeast Asia's most vibrant democracies since autocratic President Suharto resigned in 1998. The government has removed many limits on free expression and the press ranks among the most open and diverse in the region.

But several authoritarian regulations remain in place. Until recently one law allowed the attorney general's office to ban books. Since Indonesia's first direct elections in 2004, the law has been used to ban more than 20 books on issues such as military operations and the separatist insurgency in Papua.

Earlier this year a group of authors whose books were banned in 2009 asked the Constitutional Court to review the law, which they argued was out of line with Indonesia's democratic values.

Several weeks ago, the court agreed, ruling that the power to restrict printed material should rest with a court.

But Uni Zulfiani Lubis, chief editor of Indonesian television network ANTV and also a member of the Press Council that monitors Indonesia's media operations, says the ruling is not a complete victory.

"It's good news, but not enough," Lubis said. "And we cannot depend on this decision to give us the guarantee that there will be no effort like this from the government, especially the AGO (Attorney General's Office) to ban publications."

Rights activists say President Suharto often used the 1963 law on book banning to clamp down on dissent. Its use over the past decade, they say, undermines Indonesia's commitment to democracy and shows the government's continued discomfort with free expression.

The five books the attorney general banned last year were about sectarian conflict, separatist sentiment in Papua and events surrounding the coup attempt that helped bring Suharto to power in 1965.

Some Indonesian officials indicate they are not willing to entirely give up book bans.

Presidential advisor Teuku Faizasyah says Indonesia is open to free expression, but banning is justified if done to keep peace and unity in society.

"We as government need to prevent incitement, which is leading to violence and other horizontal conflict," Faizasyah said. "So in the best interests of the general public there is always need a balance in how we can manage the issue of freedom of expression, but there is also the need to ensure the safety and harmony within the society."

Indonesia is home to hundreds of different ethnic groups, and though most of its 240 million people practice Islam, there are also sizeable Christian and animist populations.

In recent months officials have warned that religious radicals threaten public harmony after small groups of Islamists attacked a Christian congregation outside Jakarta. Vice President Boediono says these groups have used freedom of expression to spread hate.

Faizasyah says the government must also be sensitive to Indonesia's cultural complexities.

"We are not at the same level of acceptance in so many parts of our society in terms of expressing ideas which are against some cultures and basic religious belief," Faizasyah added.

Lubis with the Press Council says certain restrictions are valid, such as a ban on child pornography. But she says most of the government's censorship is politically motivated, and she worries that even with limits to book banning, the government still has plenty of ways to criminalize free speech.

Under the recent ruling, courts will have the final say in deciding whether a book should be banned, but the general prosecutor and police can still investigate and sue authors or publishers they say disturb public order.

Harsh defamation laws have raised questions about free speech here. And rights activists worry that an electronic information and transaction law meant to monitor dangerous on-line exchanges could be used to justify Internet censorship.

In recent months the country's prosecutors used a controversial anti-pornography law to charge Erwin Arnada, the former editor of Indonesia's now-defunct Playboy magazine.

Although the publication contained no nudity, the Supreme Court sentenced Arnada to two years in prison for indecency. Media freedom groups, such as Reporters Without Borders, say the courts imposed the sentence under pressure from Islamic groups.

Lawyers for the team that challenged the general prosecutor's right to ban books say the verdict is a step in the right direction. But the Alliance for Independent Journalists says cases like Arnada's are evidence that people will have to keep pushing for the right to free speech in Indonesia.

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