Features Australia

Don’t poke fun at the terrorists

An exclusive interview with Meidyatama Surodiningrat, the ‘blaspheming’ Editor in Chief of the Jakarta Post

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

On Thursday July 3, 2014, the Jakarta Post, an English-language paper with a circulation of around 40,000, published a cartoon in its daily print edition. It was a few days into the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, one month after the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’ had taken the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Fallujah, and one day after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, had vowed that his Islamic caliphate would lead a conquest of Rome.

The cartoon, drawn by French cartoonist Stephane Peray, depicts a man hoisting a black flag with a skull and crossbones and Islamic writing stating ‘there is no God but Allah’ – a riff on the shahada flag with which we are now all familiar – as well as the words Allah and Mohammad inside the skull, and militants in the background preparing to shoot blindfolded people in the back of the head. Fairly tame, for a political cartoon.

The cartoon didn’t trouble the sensibilities of the Jakarta Post’s Editor in Chief, Meidyatama Surodiningrat, a mildly religious man with extensive education and twenty years’ experience as a journalist. While the Jakarta Post is additionally cautious about publishing religious content in Ramadan, they’re a hard news organisation, not needling satirists. As Surodiningrat puts it, ‘we don’t just publish something out of the blue. It is the role of journalism to raise issues within society.’

There was no response to the cartoon the day it was published, nor for the next three days after that, he explains. Controversy began stirring on social media on the afternoon of Monday, July 6. (Social media is hugely popular in Indonesia, and Jakartans are the most active users of twitter of any city in the world.) The paper elected to print a retraction and apology that afternoon, saying on their website that publishing the cartoon was an ‘error of judgment’.

On Tuesday, July 7, a number of groups, including leaders from Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) – formed by Bali bombings’ mastermind Abu Bakar Bashir in 2008 as a splinter cell of the outlawed Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist organisation – visited the Jakarta Post office and demanded to speak to Surodiningrat.

I’ll leave you to imagine being visited by leaders of your local terror cell as first we need to visit the context in Indonesia at the time. The Indonesian presidential election was being held on Wednesday, July 9. The Jakarta Post had written an editorial in favour of the now-President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi in Indonesia, on Friday, July 4: the day after the anti-Isis cartoon was published. Editorialising in favour of candidates or parties isn’t common in Indonesia, which is hardly surprising given the country’s past.

The other contender for the Presidency was Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto-era army leader with a history of human rights abuses and a billionaire brother. He tried to taint Jokowi with allegations that he was really Chinese and a secret Christian. If it sounds familiar, it won’t surprise you that for his campaign Prabowo had hired an American Republican consultant Rob Allyn, who tried to employ the same conspiratorial, race-baiting campaigns that were used against Obama. It became apparent to Surodiningrat that the cartoon incident was being framed as ‘the paper that supported Jokowi is insulting Islam.’

‘It was worrisome for a while,’ Surodiningrat says, noting the growing popularity of IS in Indonesia at the time. But then politicians, other media, and the military started speaking about the IS threat, which seemed to take the heat out of the cartoon affair. Yet in September, he was summonsed by the Indonesian Press Council. In December, he was summonsed by the Jakarta police as a suspect in religious defamation: blasphemy. The charge carries five years jail time, not to mention existential risks. Surodiningrat refused to be interviewed by the police on legal and moral grounds. He could have been arrested, but also feared setting a precedent that media cases could become criminal cases. But it would make such good copy if they came in and dragged me out, he thought.

On January 7 this year – coincidentally the date of the Charlie Hebdo shootings – the police referred the matter back to the Press Council, although police are still able to formally charge Surodiningrat at any time. There is no timetable for the Press Council or the police to finish their investigations; he has no idea when, or how, the affair will end. ‘We aren’t fearless, but we aren’t going to be afraid either,’ he vows.

The great irony is, as the Arab-American writer Hussein Ibish has noted, that the prohibition against representations of the Prophet Mohammed was intended to strengthen Islam’s monotheism. But now, as the Persians jocularly advise, we must ‘go crazy with God but be careful with Mohammad.’

The current wave of Islamist terror may find its inspiration globally, but its sadism is reduced to the local level. The Danish, Charlie Hebdo, and Jakarta Post cartoons are readily available on Google – for most I would suggest it is the primary means by which the images are viewed – making Google the largest distributor of the offending images. Yet the thrill of the domination of the censors and the terrorists is distinctly localised.

In his continual defence of freedom of speech, Indian-born English writer Kenan Malik has routinely spoken of the soft bigotry of low expectations of many in the liberal West, pointing out the fear of offending a community is often invoked when the debate is already occurring within the community itself.

Conversely, it seems clear that a two-speed empathy is emerging between the victims of terrorism and censorship in the West, and those living with a much more acute sense of it in other parts of the world. Defenders of liberalism such as Meidyatama Surodiningrat in Islamic countries face far greater hardships than we can imagine, but, he says, ‘I’ve learnt that someone needs to speak up, especially in an emerging democracy.’

While terrorism sticks to the local, so too it appears have the full-throated defences of liberalism in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. The issues have been firmly contextualised within the political issues du jour: for the right it has been freedom of speech, for the left it has been racism.

It’s worth noting then that I am the only journalist outside of Indonesia to have spoken to Meidyatama Surodiningrat since he was accused of blasphemy in December. Supported by sections of the Indonesian elite, he has continued his fight in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, publishing a Je suis Charlie headline the day after the attacks.

‘It’s not a fight we are looking for,’ he says, ‘but it is something we won’t give up.’

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Elle Hardy is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia.

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