Building U.S.-Indonesia Mutual Understanding Since 1994

From Hiding, Indonesian Defends Free Expression

New York Times.

JAKARTA — Hiding out with a two-year jail sentence hanging over his head and vigilantes vowing to track him down, the editor of Indonesia’s defunct version of Playboy magazine, Erwin Arnada, insists he was never in the pornography business.

The men’s magazine, which began publication in 2006, was relatively tame, and conspicuously free of nudity. But faced with violent protests by hard-line Muslim groups, it soon folded, while Mr. Arnada fended off a succession of criminal charges.

Things had gone quiet until late last month, with the surprise announcement that the Supreme Court, in an unpublicized verdict last year, had found him guilty of indecency.

Rather than turn himself in by a Monday deadline, Mr. Arnada went underground, setting off the latest stage of Indonesia’s ongoing debate between defenders of free speech and conservative activists seeking to reshape a diverse Indonesia into a stricter, Islamic-flavored moral mold.

“This isn’t about threats against me or Playboy Indonesia, this is about press freedom in Indonesia,” Mr. Arnada said by telephone. “If this is allowed to happen, there will be more violations against the press, the criminalization of the press.”

“When I brought the brand to Indonesia, I proclaimed that I was not going to produce a porn magazine,” he said.

Indeed, by the standards of Indonesia’s often racy press, there was nothing remarkable about Playboy Indonesia, with its modestly attired models and general-interest articles.

But as a brand bearing all the hallmarks of Western decadence, it soon raised the ire of groups like the Islamic Defenders’ Front, or F.P.I., a hard-line organization frequently blamed, but rarely punished, for violent attacks on secularists and minority religions.

Protests led by the F.P.I., including one attempt to ransack Playboy’s Jakarta offices, forced the magazine to relocate to the Hindu-majority island of Bali. After 10 issues, the magazine closed, in mid-2007.

The fact that the authorities even deigned to bring charges against Mr. Arnada was seen by many as proof of capitulation by the government in the face of Indonesia’s minority hard-line fringe.

Mr. Arnada’s legal victories, first in a district court and then in Jakarta’s High Court, were met by liberals with relief.

And then, from out of the depths of Indonesia’s opaque justice system, came Mr. Arnada’s conviction — something both sides say they never expected.

With Mr. Arnada now on the run, and his passport blocked, lawyers and the Indonesian Press Council are attempting to get prosecutors to rescind his detention order while they appeal to the Supreme Court to review its decision to find him guilty, said his lawyer, Todung Mulya Lubis.

At issue, he said, is the use of criminal charges to silence a member of the news media, when a press law, minus the draconian charges, exists on the books.

“I’m not defending Playboy magazine, per se, I’m defending press freedom, freedom of speech as a whole,” he said.

In the meantime, the F.P.I. has vowed to find Mr. Arnada and hand him over to the authorities if they cannot find him themselves, said the group’s secretary general, Ahmad Shobri Lubis.

He said that while liberals may denounce the hunt for the Playboy editor, criminal charges are essential to defending the morality of Muslim-majority Indonesia from Western influence.

“Indonesia is modest and respects its culture. It’s not like in the West, which has already lost its moral values and its decency,” he said, rejecting accusations that the group had put pressure on the court to produce the guilty verdict.

He acknowledged that Playboy’s content was far less revealing than other magazines, but of the dozens of publications that the F.P.I. had tried to bring to court, it was the only success.

Bagir Manan, the chairman of the Press Council, said he had written a letter to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono asking him to intervene to stop Mr. Arnada’s detention.

But whether Mr. Yudhoyono will intervene remains to be seen. Although he is seen as a liberal figure, he has been criticized for frequently placating hard-line groups intent on implementing conservative measures, including elements of Shariah in some regions.

Mr. Yudhoyono supported a wide-ranging 2008 anti-pornography law promoted by Islamic parties that has been criticized as a threat to free expression and Indonesia’s non-Muslim minorities.

Mr. Yudhoyono’s information minister, Tifatul Sembiring, who is from a conservative Islam-based party in the president’s coalition, last month introduced a controversial online pornography filter over the objections of service providers and free speech advocates.

His government has also been criticized for failing to rein in the F.P.I. and its allies.

The group has been blamed for a series of violent protests and forced closures of Christian churches this year as well as a campaign against the minority Islamic sect Ahmadiyah, which was declared “deviant” by a government decree in 2008. Mr. Yudhoyono has so far stayed silent after his religious affairs minister, Suryadharma Ali, said last month that Ahmadiyah should be disbanded.

Mr. Yudhoyono’s spokesman, Julian Aldrin Pasha, did not respond to requests for comment on Mr. Arnada’s case.

Still, speaking from hiding, Mr. Arnada said he had faith in the president’s judgment.

“The president has a number of times affirmed that he wants to defend democracy and defend the Indonesian press. He’s affirmed that, and I hope he holds to his commitment,” he said.

“We can’t let the country be run by an organization that has clearly has for years been carrying out acts of anarchy.”

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