JAKARTA, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- Indonesia turned a page by ripping up a 50-year-old law that allowed the government indiscriminately to ban books it considered dangerous or too controversial.
Human rights groups said freedom of speech to a leap forward when Indonesia's constitutional court struck down the book banning law that has been in place since the days of former President Suharto in the 1960s.
Successive governments have used it to clamp down on any form of public dissent, to bolster public order and to improve sensitive national security situations.
Suharto was well known for cracking down on dissent during his 32-year rule up to 1998. But since then, there has been a gradual widening of freedom expression for the nation's nearly 240 million people, the vast majority being Muslim.
Even so, in the past six years, the law was used to ban 22 books. Most have dealt with the 1965 coup attempt but one dealt with the mass killing of suspected communists in 1965 and 1966, another on the insurgency and free-Papua movement in Papua and two books were on religion.
The legal challenge to the law was mounted by several authors and publishers who argued that the government's banning powers curtailed freedom of expression.
In the landmark verdict, the Constitutional Court took away the powers of the Attorney General's Office to unilaterally ban books, saying such power should rest with a judicial court.
"The 1963 Law on Securing Printed Materials whose content could disrupt public order is against the constitution," Court Chief Mahfud MD said. "The law is no longer legally binding."
Justice Muhammad Alim said in his statement that in a state governed by law, confiscating or banning publications and books should be done through the process of law. "If an action is categorized as being against the law, the process should be through the courts," he said.
He said that the authority to ban goods such as printed materials considered liable to disrupt public order can't be handed over to an institution without a court ruling.
"The authority of the attorney general to ban printed material or books without a court process is the approach of an authoritarian state, not one based on law like Indonesia," Alim said.
Government representatives took some consolation in the fact that the court didn't rule out book banning altogether.
Also, the government can apply for a court to temporarily ban a book until due legal process has been completed to decide if the book should legally be banned in the longer term.
"If it is urgent, before a verdict, the Attorney General's Office can ask permission of the court but there should be certainty that [the book] is dangerous," Mahfud said.
The government also retains the right to monitor what publishing houses are preparing to print, giving the government a running start in any legal application to ban a book.
Government representative Mualimin Abdi welcomed the ruling. The authors of dangerous printed material "can be reported [to the police] according to the Criminal Code or could also be sued through the administrative court," he said.
Indonesia still has anti-pornography laws and a 1966 regulation banning communist material that might be used as a catch-all to ban material, activists said.
In February this year, author John Roosa, upon learning that his own book concerning Suharto's coup in 1965 had been banned, wrote that he was surprised Indonesia still censored so many publications.
"When I first heard that the translation of my book, 'Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto's Coup d'Etat' was banned, I had a deja vu," he wrote.
"It was like I was still living in the era of Suharto when every printed material was censored, when college students were charged for reading books authored by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, when a lot of my friends were working anonymously and moving underground in the fight against the dictator."
Book bans are obsolete, said Roosa, who is deputy head of the history department at the University of British Columbia, Canada. "The book ban is an anomaly amid the remarkable progress in legal reform since 1998," he said.