Gone are the days when authors in the country had to live in fear of seeing their books outlawed by the government, thanks to a watershed court ruling Wednesday that expunges a 1963 law on book-banning.
The Constitutional Court’s ruling stripped the Attorney General’s Office of its authority to ban books it deemed controversial. The institution has banned 22 books since 2006, including 13 history text books for use in junior and senior high schools.
However books can still be banned; judges said the decision to remove books from circulation should rest with the courts.
“This is a turning point in history,” said Darmawan, an author whose book was banned by the AGO in late 2009, after the court read out its verdict. “We [authors] now regain our courage to write more books.”
His Enam Jalan Menuju Tuhan (Six Paths to God) was among the books that made the blacklist in late 2009, along with four others, including Dalih Pembunuhan Massal Gerakan 30 September dan Kudeta Soeharto (Pretext for Mass Murder: The Sept. 30th Movement and Soeharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia) by Jhon Roosa and Mengungkap Misteri Keberagaman Agama (Resolving the Mystery of Religious Diversity) by Syahrudin Ahmad.
Darmawan and other authors whose books were banned had filed for a judicial review of the 1963 law on confiscation of printed materials whose content could disrupt public order.
The court ruled that the law was against the Constitution as it violated basic human rights by granting officials the authority to ban books without due process of law.
“The sole authority of the Attorney General to ban the distribution of printed materials without due process of law is a characteristic of an authoritarian state and not a law-based state like Indonesia,” Constitutional justice Muhammad Alim said.
One judge, Hamdan Zoelva, made a dissenting opinion to the ruling. He said the courts were law enforcement institutions and not ones that enforced public order. He said the Attorney General should have the authority to ban the distribution of printed materials but only after getting a permit to do so from a court.
The authors have also requested the court to review an article in a 2004 law on the AGO that regulates its authority to monitor the circulation of printed material to maintain public order.
The Constitutional Court ruled that the article was constitutional but highlighted that the word “monitoring” could not be interpreted as banning or confiscating.
Deputy attorney general for intelligence Edwin P. Situmorang said the court ruling did not annul bans imposed on books before the ruling was issued.
“This ruling does not have any impact on our previous decisions to ban the books,” he said.
The AGO’s book-banning activities started as early as 1959 with Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Hoakiau di Indonesia (The Chinese in Indonesia) being one of the very first books that was prohibited.
The AGO has banned more than 400 books since then. The list includes other works by Pramoedya, novels and plays by Utuy T. Sontani and short stories by Sobron Aidit, the younger brother of the former leader of the communist party D. N. Aidit.
The book-banning law, often used under former president Soeharto’s rule, saw revival in 2006, two years into President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s tenure.