Saturday 30 May 2020 | 06:17 | SYDNEY
Saturday 30 May 2020 | 06:17 | SYDNEY

Balibo ban not so democratic

4 December 2009 15:02

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at the Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia's foreign policy.

Although the Indonesian National Film Censorship Board's decision on Tuesday to ban the screening of 'Balibo' was not entirely surprising, it represents a small retrograde step for Indonesian democracy and foreign policy.

The remarkable success of Indonesia's democratic reforms over the last decade is highlighted almost ad nauseum in international fora, foreign policy speeches, commentary and analysis on Indonesia. Indonesia rightly prides itself on its post-Suharto political achievements – a free press, democratic elections, depoliticisation of the military, and a flourishing civil society – and now sees itself as an exemplar for other ASEAN states.

Over the last five years, the promotion of democratic values has become an integral part of Indonesia's regional diplomacy and foreign policy. High on the agenda of last month's Habibie Center anniversary forum on 'Democracy as a Regional Strategic Agenda' in Jakarta, for example, were the ways Indonesia could share its democratic lessons with other ASEAN states.

In this context, the Balibo ban is significant. 

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the ban was put in place so as 'not to affect global perceptions of Indonesia'. The ban was supported wholeheartedly by Indonesian military headquarters, which also seemed concerned about the diplomatic implications.

The decision, probably made at levels far higher than the censorship board, represents a missed opportunity. Although the Indonesian Government and many in Indonesian society would disagree with the version of events depicted in the film, a public statement to that effect, with an acknowledgement that a mature democracy like Indonesia can contend with a diversity of views, would surely have been more convergent with the democratic image Indonesia is keen to project.

One can only speculate on the reasons behind the decision to ban 'Balibo'. An Indonesian friend suggested it may be that the Indonesian Government was reluctant to create more problems for itself, given the uproar over the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) case in Jakarta. Or maybe 'old guard' elements won on the day.

What Jakarta must be mindful of is that such censorship can harm Indonesia's credibility and public diplomacy, as it projects itself as an exemplar of tolerance, pluralism and military reform to ASEAN and the international community beyond.

Photo courtesy of the Balibo film official website.