'Balibo Five' film tests free speech in Indonesia

Defying government censors, activists in Indonesia screened a film last week about the controversial 1975 killings of foreign journalists known as the Balibo Five. Organizers of an annual film festival are contesting the ban.

Irwin Ferdiansyah/AP
People watch the film Balibo which depicts the murders of Australian-based journalists during Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor, Dec 3, at a gallery in Jakarta. Indonesia's censorship board has banned the film from public screening.

A movie that depicts Indonesian war crimes in East Timor has become a lightning rod for free-speech activists in Indonesia, who have defied a government ban on its screening.

Last Tuesday, censors ordered the organizers of an annual film festival in Jakarta to yank "Balibo," an Australian movie set in East Timor in 1975 that dramatizes the plight of five slain journalists. Government and military officials have said the film is propaganda and could inflame the public and upset bilateral relations.

But, in a move that underscores Indonesia's still halting democratic transition a decade after it pulled out of East Timor, an independent journalists' association screened the movie last Thursday to a packed audience in Jakarta. And film festival officials say they are trying to overturn the ban and screen it this week.

By defying last Tuesday's ban, officials of the Alliance of Indonesia Journalists could, in theory, face a jail term and/or a large fine. The group has vowed to show "Balibo" in other cities in Indonesia.

Officials say this isn't the first time that the Jakarta International Film Festival (Jiffest) has run into trouble with Indonesia's censor board, a legacy of the country's authoritarian past under US-backed President Suharto. In 2006, five festival films were denied permission to screen. Censors have also ordered cuts to films, mostly for sexual content. Under Suharto, bans on foreign books, films, and periodicals were common.

Three decades later, deaths still disputed

Indonesia's 24-year occupation of East Timor, and the conduct of its military, remain sensitive. Adding to the discomfort, Australian police recently began investigating a coroner's verdict that the so-called Balibo Five – the journalists sent by Australian media to East Timor to cover Indonesia's invasion – were murdered by Indonesian troops. Indonesia insists that they died during crossfire in the remote territory.

This row, and Indonesia's refusal to cooperate with the Australian police inquiry, is the backdrop to the ban on "Balibo." Indonesia has angrily disputed the findings of the Australian coroner that the Balibo Five were killed on the orders of senior government officials who wanted the invasion kept quiet.

Indonesia's Minister of Culture and Tourism said Friday that the film isn't fit to be screened as it could "create conflicts," the Jakarta Globe reported. "Maybe there are people who feel victimized or unsatisfied (with the ban). But it is for the country's interest, the security and welfare of the people in the future," Minister of Culture and Tourism Jero Wacik told reporters.

Ban may draw more attention than film

Nauval Yazid, a Jiffest official, disputes this argument and says that the festival audience is mature enough to make up its own mind about a fictional film based on real events. "I don't see how screening it in a theater to 100 or 200 people can cause a huge uproar…. We want to open up a discussion," he says.

Mr. Yazid says he is waiting to hear if censors will relent and allow a screening this week, before the festival ends. "We want to discuss this again with the censorship board," he says.

The Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club had intended to screen the film separately last Tuesday but opted to pull it after the ban was announced. The screening was a fundraising event in the name of Sander Thoenes, a Monitor correspondent killed in East Timor in 1999 by retreating Indonesian troops. The club runs an educational foundation named after Mr. Thoenes, a Dutch national. Thoenes, whose killers were never brought to justice, was the first foreign reporter killed in East Timor since the Balibo deaths.

Jason Tedjasukmana, the club president, argues that the ban and the controversy it generated had only added to the interest in "Balibo" among Indonesians. "You can't buy publicity like this," he says.

East Timor, which gained independence in 2002, remains a sore point for Indonesian nationalists and there is virtually no public pressure to bring the military or politicians to heel for abuses there. Free-speech activists argue that this is no reason to ban a film that presents an alternative viewpoint.

Three of the five festival films banned in 2006 were documentaries on East Timor. But, in a sign of inconsistency, the censors didn't block "Hero's Journey," a laudatory documentary narrated by Timorese resistance leader turned president Xanana Gusmao, who attended the screening, says Yazid.

A Monitor series on the Indonesian infantry battalion accused of murdering Sander Thoenes

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