Commentary: Culture of impunity thrives in ‘democratic’ Indonesia

Today is International Day to End Impunity, an issue relevant to Indonesia but sadly one the nation appears to be ignoring, at its peril. If Indonesia is struggling in its march toward democracy, perhaps the question of impunity should be explored.

This is not one of those international days launched by the United Nations, but rather the initiative of a handful of advocacy groups for freedom of expression under the Canadian-based IFEX. Maybe that’s why the message failed to register in Indonesia.

There are several reasons why everyone concerned with freedom of expression should join with the rest of the world in marking Nov. 23 as International Day to End Impunity.

The relevance of the message is much closer to home than many of us assume.

For one it marks the 2009 massacre of 58 people, including 32 journalists and media workers in Maguindanao in the Philippines, for which not a single person to date has been brought to justice.

Since 2011, IFEX and all its network organizations have used Nov. 23 to call for an end to impunity, including the culture of impunity, all over the world.

IFEX says more than 500 journalists have been killed in the last 10 years, and that in nine out of 10 cases, the murderers have gone free. “Murder is the ultimate form of censorship, and media are undoubtedly on the frontline of free expression,” states the IFEX campaign website

The day is not dedicated solely to journalists who lost their lives but everyone — ordinary citizens, artists, bloggers and musicians — who died fighting for their basic human rights to express themselves and those who were harassed, threatened, tortured, intimidated and jailed.

Indonesia is no stranger to the culture of impunity, even today, one is almost tempted to call it its middle name, the Republic of Impunity Indonesia.

Journalism in Indonesia has had its share of martyrs who died fighting, and yes, the majority of the murderers got away.

According to the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), which is a member of IFEX, there have been eight cases of journalists who were killed or died under mysterious circumstances since 1996. These cases remain unresolved.

Only one murder case, involving a journalist in Bali, led to the jailing of a killer. That is one-in-nine, worse than the IFEX world’s average of one-in-10.

One particular case is the death of Fuad Muhammad Syarifuddin alias Udin, of the Bernas daily in Yogyakarta, who was slain in August 1996. His case went to court but the convicted person was released after Udin’s wife said they had put the wrong person in jail. The case was reopened, but it has made no progress. With the statute of limitations, Udin’s case would have to be officially declared closed next August.

No doubt this will be a boost to supporters of the culture of impunity, of which there are many in this country as well as a huge setback to journalism and freedom of expression and, ultimately, to democracy.

Indonesia should also dedicate the day to the most celebrated case of impunity in the country, the murder of human rights campaigner Munir Said Thalib in 2004. He was not a journalist, but he had been on the front line in fighting to ensure that people had human rights, including and not solely their freedom of speech, protected by the state.

One indication why impunity not only thrives but has become very much ingrained into the nation’s political culture is the way Indonesia collectively views the massacre of communists and suspected communists in 1965-1966.

One figure cited that as many as 2 million people were summarily executed during the campaign led by the military, which through its propaganda, unleashed nationwide anger against anyone suspected of being a communist or related to one.

Some recent attempts to address this issue or to even shake the nation out of its collective amnesia have been thwarted.

The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) earlier this year completed an investigation into the killings by the state, and found that there was a gross violation of human rights and that the state should investigate further and issue an apology.

Komnas HAM’s recommendations were ignored and the report shelved by the government.

And there is the documentary movie The Act of Killing, whose British-based American producer Joshua Oppenheimer decided to offer it as a free download for Indonesian viewers.

The movie centers on a character in Medan, North Sumatra, who gladly retells the story of his involvement in the massacre and gave the gory details of his killing methods.

The message of the movie is not so much about impunity. No, we have turned this person, and many other villains like him, into national heroes.

Something has to change in the way we regard these killings, many of which were perpetrated by the state or at least certainly condoned. If we tolerate impunity, we are just making a mockery of our democracy.