Neither back nor forward
In recent years, the movie-going public in Indonesia has been familiarized with the idea of sensor mandiri. Officially introduced by the Film Censorship Board in 2015, the term literally translates into ‘independent censorship’—a concept promoted by the regulatory body to emphasize on the people’s role in self-scrutinizing their media consumption. Throughout its public campaign, the censorship board differentiates sensor mandiri from self-censorship. Rather it is narrated as a state-endorsed form of media literacy, as a vigilant stance against the daily deluge of content in mass media. The campaign is still ongoing, mostly through promotional clips before screenings in major film theaters.
On the surface, sensor mandiri seems similar to the many other attempts to ‘democratize’ cultural life in Indonesia—a discourse that has been maintained, at least in public rhetoric, by the state since the 1998 Reformation. This monumental event saw the fall of military dictatorship and promised an era of political openness in Indonesia, which in the process popularized a set of buzzwords around the idea of deregulating cultural affairs to a certain extent so that the public holds more initiative and therefore more agency. Before the Reformation, the nation was ruled for more than three decades under the watchful eyes of General Suharto. Having taken power in 1966, Suharto’s regime had been guilty of a litany of mass killings, media crackdowns, and forced disappearances. The state stood like a giant, towering over the masses. Beneath the shadows, the masses crawled about silently, obediently, in the hope of not getting crushed by the giant’s feet.
Upon deeper reflection, sensor mandiri is neither a cultural nor political breakthrough. At the very least, it is a convenient rhetorical device for the state to legitimize any form of restriction on the cinematic arts by utilizing the sentiment of the masses. After all, if filmmakers want to screen their works for the public, they still need to submit their film copies to the censorship board. The approval from the regulatory body however does not guarantee any protection. If the films are protested or boycotted by any public entity, usually due to topics considered sensitive in cultural and religious domains, the films could be removed from circulation without any compensation to the filmmakers.
In this sense, sensor mandiri is best considered as a catch-22 situation. It not only preserves vertical censorship by state actors, but also encourages horizontal censorship among the masses, and both are connected in volatile power dynamics. Sometimes they work in tandem, sometimes they act on their accord and take advantage of each other. Either way, the targeted film and its social network must bear the brunt.
The case of Garin Nugroho’s Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku (Memories of My Body) provides a good illustration. Despite having been approved by the censorship board, the film sparked public uproar when it was theatrically released in Indonesia on 24 April 2019. An online petition circulated, demanding the film be taken down from movie theaters due to its depiction of queer characters. In the following weeks, various mayors and governors lined up to publicly condemn the film, forbidding it to be screened in their areas. Community screenings in several cities were then raided and assaulted by hardline civil groups.
Due to the intense public pressure, Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku only enjoyed a short lifespan on the silver screens. The movie theater businesses dared to take further risk in screening the disputed film. The censorship board remained silent throughout the furor, but never showed any sign of retracting the film’s censorship certificate. It was simply left to bleed on its own. The film did find a second life a few months later as it was released on online streaming platforms, made possible by the lack of regulation on online distribution–the censorship law only dictates theatrical releases, festival screenings, and home video. There was no further dispute, but the damage was already done in the public sphere. The anti-LGBT narrative propagated by the challengers has gained momentum, bringing intense public scrutiny to other films, artists, and social groups associated with the subject.
With sensor mandiri, there is neither a way back nor forward. The state still wields control but is no more a giant, as any entity with a populist agenda and a well-timed public maneuver could easily exert pressure to a dangerous proportion.
All the world’s a stage
Sensor mandiri might originate in film circles, but the power struggle it generates is similar to the wider trends of arts censorship in Indonesia in the last decade. The public represents a sizable challenge, comparable to the usual suspects of censorship agents in Indonesia—namely state institutions and religious groups.
The research in Indonesia managed to identify 128 cases from 2010 to 2022. Except for two, all were sourced from public domain, from mass media to human rights reports, and then synchronized with the dataset of a similar research by Koalisi Seni. 13 cases are chiefly driven by the civil groups, with 37 other cases that involve both civil groups and state institutions or regulatory bodies as the key players. These represent more than one-third of the cases in Indonesia. This is a significant proportion, considering the data set in Indonesia is bumped up by 36 cases related to the pandemic protocol. Should we remove the pandemic cases, which are driven mainly by regulatory bodies, the public—in any capacity—would make up more than half of the arts censorship cases in Indonesia.
This is certainly in contrast with the situation in previous decades. The masses, once a subject of intense scrutiny by the state, now often act as judge, jury, and executioner. The state either acts as an accomplice or as a convenient stamp of authority. To gain the attention of the state, the challengers usually cite laws to support their case and demand the state to act upon the targeted artists or artworks. Of 128 cases identified, 73 were backed by law, ranging from the 1965 Blasphemy Law, 1966 Anti-Communist Law, 2008 Pornography Law, to 2008 Information and Electronic Transactions Law (usually utilized in cases involving digital media, which would be challenged using the law’s broad definition of ‘slander’ and ‘defamation’). If legal citations fail, the challengers often turn to violence, which is the case with Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front). The hardline civil group featured in seven cases—five concluded with physical threat and harassment.
Another contrast lies in the aim or the endgame. In previous decades, before the 1998 Reformation, the state censored the arts mainly to protect its image and keep the masses in order, despite publicly narrating these actions as being ‘for the benefit of the people’. Since 2010, censorship often plays out as a performative act on the public stage. In many cases, the attempt to censor has more currency to the censor themselves, as the limits imposed by the censorship agents are often leaky borders.
Indeed, there were 80 cases that end with full banning and 20 conclude with partial removal or distribution restriction. Yet a sizable number of the censored works (or events) found a ‘second chance’ through other forms or mediums, and none resulted in the artists being unable to go about their business as usual. The one exception was for Joshua Oppenheimer, whose documentaries about the 1966-1967 massacres (The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence) drew ire from the military. The two films however are publicly available to Indonesians on Youtube.
The contemporary spirit of arts censorship in Indonesia is the politics of optics. This is partly enabled by the freedom of expression after the 1998 Reformation, but also partly empowered by the rise of social media and influencer culture. Any attempt to censor arts is guaranteed to generate public attention, especially if the ones being disputed intersect with populist agendas. For the censorship agents, the attempt often leverages their public standing, even if the attempt fails to remove the artwork from public circulation. For the targets, the attempt brings more public scrutiny and paints targets on other artists and events associated with similar subjects. The consequence might not be readily apparent in the short term, but the public scrutiny it generates is potentially harmful in the long term.
Based on data gathered from 2010 to 2022, the targets of censorship in Indonesia are mostly associated with religion (22 cases), communism (16 cases), and LGBT (11 cases). On similar timescale, all three are often targeted by state officials and hardline civil groups in populist political campaigns during the rise of conservatism and identity politics in recent years.
Ironically, for similar reasons, state actors also become the target of censorship on several occasions. The most notable happened in 2017, when the Police Movie Festival (organized by the Indonesian National Police) was put under intense public pressure for awarding the top prize to Anto Galon’s Kamu adalah Aku yang Lain (You are Another Me). The film was accused of Islamophobia for depicting a ‘distant’ and ‘indifferent’ mob of Muslim characters, who hinder the protagonist’s urgent ambulance ride in the story. The police force ended up taking down the film from the festival’s official Youtube channel.
The aim for public attention is reflected in the types of art forms most censored in Indonesia. The popularity of the medium matters, as it determines the potential publicity of the censorship attempt. Films, as the most industrialized arts and therefore the highest public reach in the country, leads the way with 28 cases—13 of those are driven by civil groups and only five by the Film Censorship Board. Following close behind is artwork in public space with 10 cases, ranging from accusations of blasphemy (such as the 2010 demolition of Three Mojang Statue in Bekasi), communism (the 2016 removal of Galam Zulkifli’s The Indonesian Idea painting from the Sukarno-Hatta International Airport), to pornography (the 2019 partial cover-up of mermaid statues in Ancol).
Here, there, everywhere
As previously noted, the Indonesia dataset contains a large group of outliers, as the number of cases of restrictions or censorship due to pandemic protocols were among the highest.
The inclusion of these cases might be disputable due to the legit safety concerns. It was actually risky to gather in public space during the pandemic, which the COVID-19 Task Force (often in tandem with security forces and local governments) tried to enforce by canceling art events—usually music shows or dance performance by local groups—in various regions. However, during those times, the state often disregarded the health protocol by allowing its officials or institutions to organize public events. These often attracted larger crowds to the grassroots art activities.
The state’s selective restriction warrants the inclusion of the pandemic cases in the dataset. Despite the specific mechanism of censorship, these cases present similar power dynamics to the non-pandemic cases. Most of them are initiated by reports or actions by the masses, which are then acted upon by the state authorities, except for one case: the 2021 forceful cancellation of Festival Jaran Kepang—a traditional dance performance—in Medan. The chief driver is a civil group named Forum Umat Islam Medan, which claimed the action was necessary to protect society from a perceived act of blasphemy. Remarkably, this outlier case from an outlier data group mirrors the wider trend of arts censorship in Indonesia.
Another point of interest is the geographical spread of the pandemic cases. Almost none are situated in major cities such as Jakarta, Yogyakarta, or Bandung. In fact, most of them are located in villages or regencies. This is partly due to the difference of arts network. Artists in less urbanized areas rely more on activities, showings, or performances in public space, which is not always the case with those from more urbanized regions. Art workers in major cities could rely on digital or online solutions, which greatly diminish the risk of running into troubles with the safety protocol in public space.
That said, the complete dataset does show a trend of decentralization. Cases from major cities or provincial capitals only make up one-third of the arts censorship cases from 2010 to 2022. This could partly be understood through the general pattern of attention-seeking performative act. The smaller cities or regencies present more open or flexible power dynamics, mainly due to the diminishing presence of state authorities, which could be engineered more easily by any civil initiative. As social media and influence culture continue to reshape and blend into daily life, these trends could go on in the coming years.
About the author(s)
Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu is the chief editor and co-founder of Cinema Poetica—a collective of film critics, activists, and researchers in Indonesia. In 2013, Adrian participated in Berlinale Talent Campus as a film critic, and since then regularly organized or mentored film criticism workshops in Indonesia. He has also curated several film festivals, including Festival Film Dokumenter, Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival, and Singapore International Film Festival. In 2020, as part of Cinema Poetica, Adrian contributed several writings for Antarkota Antarlayar: Potret Komunitas Film di Indonesia (Between Cities and Screens: Film Communities in Indonesia), a book published by Jakarta Arts Council.