Mon, 12 Jun 2000

War on pornography

If Thursday's ruling against Matra men's magazine was supposed to have showcased the government's clampdown against pornography, the police and the judiciary could not have made a worst choice. Picking on the monthly magazine for printing pictures of young models which the judge considered semipornographic -- when dozens of other magazines got away with printing far more blatant and offensive pictures -- has sent the wrong signal about the authorities' sense of priority. Picking on Matra's editor Robertus Riantiarno, who was given a five-month suspended sentence by the court, gave the dangerous impression that the authorities still feel animosity toward the man who has had several brushes with the law in the past for defending free speech.

As much as the public sympathizes with the difficulties the government faces in curbing the spread of pornographic material, picking on Matra was a grave error. The real culprits in the big pornographic business are still loose out there, spreading filth and raking in profit with impunity. By convicting Riantiarno, the authorities may have turned the heat on genuine campaigners of free speech.

In the last two years, Indonesia has seen a mushrooming of new publications which take advantage of the advent of a free press era. Inevitably, some of these have turned to pornographic or semipornographic material. They are stretching the limits and testing society's level of tolerance. Matra's case came to the forefront when several religious organizations decided enough was enough last year and took to the streets to demand the government clamp down on magazines considered to have violated society's norms and sense of moral decency.

Even in this era of a free press, the Criminal Code still bans the dissemination of pornographic material. The police, prosecutors and the courts still have to interpret and enforce the code. But rather than taking the initiative, the authorities seem to have acted only when under pressure. And it is Matra they picked on when they could have chosen dozens of other publications which have blatantly violated society's sense of propriety.

Any government war on pornography should not be limited to the print media when there are other medium through which pornography has made inroads. The police have yet to come to grips with the open sale of pornographic VCDs in many parts of Jakarta and other major cities. The authorities have not even began to look for ways of stopping the dissemination of pornographic materials through the Internet, a problem that even the most developed countries like the United States are still grappling with.

In Indonesia, as in other countries which uphold free speech, the pornographic business is riding on the back of the free press and those who trade in it would not hesitate to invoke the right to freedom of expression in protecting their money-spinning businesses. Many protesters against pornography have also often blamed the unlimited freedom that the press enjoy for this condition.

For better or worse, the government must continue with its campaign to fight pornography on all fronts. But any campaign against pornography must not infringe on people's right to freedom of expression. There in all probability lies the challenge for the authorities. Judging by the way the Matra case was handled, they have not done a good job of it so far.