Freedom and Blasphemy: On Indonesian Press Bans and Danish Cartoons
Two prominent Indonesian social scientists, Ariel Heryanto and Stanley Yoseph Adi (2002: 51), have observed that “all dominant narratives of the rise of the nation in Indonesia are inseparable from the history of the press.” This is not an uncommon view (see, e.g., Adam 1995; Sen and Hill 2000; Tickell 1987). Indeed, by many accounts the special role played by the press in narratives of the nation is hardly confined to Indonesia. A more general claim is implied by Heryanto and Adi’s (2002: 49 – 50) remark that “typical of many colonial and post-colonial societies, the press . . . in Indonesia carries a moral authority and political weight not seen in many industrialized First World countries.” They imply that the importance of the press in these societies goes beyond being a conduit for information, a catalyst for action, or even, as famously argued by Benedict Anderson (1991), a ritualistic inculcation of new social imaginaries; nor are these historical narratives and attendant hagiographies only about national identity. The reference to moral authority should remind us that they are also — as Anderson noted — about the supplanting of sacred languages with the vernaculars of print capitalism, an element of the (apparent) triumph of secularism. Indeed, this may be one reason the press carries special authority within many narratives of the rise of the nation well beyond the Euro-American world. I argue that, by linking purportedly secular language to concepts of freedom and of voice, some familiar ideologies of the press can manifest a certain moral narrative of modernity, a story of human agency emancipated from its captivation with fetishes and other unrealities (see Keane 2007: 47 – 51). Of course, there are many competing views of the press, and actual practices are surely even more diverse. But it is not uncommon that the press is seen to play a special role in history. In such cases, this perception may, in part, reflect the way in which it seems to embody freedom and, at times, to give concrete form to the idea that a people can be a historical agent, by means of giving the people a voice. With this in mind, we may see how conflicts over the actions of the press can reveal some of the difficulties posed by the moral narrative of modernity and the common sense of contemporary liberalism.
The claims to authority for the press that Heryanto and Adi’s remark exemplifies rest on semiotic ideologies that give rise to paradoxes due both to their particular portrayal of signification — one far less complex than the range of actual practices — and to their genealogical ties to that moral narrative of modernity. Moreover, two common (if not universal) grounds for that authority, that the press is supposed to embody freedom and to give voice to the people, may turn out to be at odds with each other. To help make these problems visible, in this article I juxtapose the notorious incident of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 with a quite different sort, the closing of the Indonesian magazine Tempo in 1994 and the new kinds of conflict that subsequently emerged after the lifting of press censorship in 1998. The Tempo case seems to be a straightforward instance of an authoritarian state suppressing outspoken journalists. But when placed in the context of religious objections to publications as exemplified by the Danish case, the Tempo ban may also display certain moral dimensions implicit in the authority often claimed for the press. As I show, these dimensions have become even more apparent since the lifting of Indonesia’s formal apparatus of press controls in recent years, as former defenders of press freedom themselves give voice to explicitly moral anxieties about the consequences of that freedom. The Indonesian and Danish cases obviously differ greatly in historical context, political implications, the power differentials between the press and its opponents, and, for that matter, semiotic modalities (texts and images, respectively, each with distinct kinds of truth claims and communicative norms). The celebrated role played by the Indonesian press in many narratives of the nation’s history may not be duplicated in places like Denmark. The full-fledged commercialization of media is far more recent in Indonesia than in Denmark and gives rise to quite distinct worries. More specifically, the banning of Tempo is usually seen as a critical moment in a growing popular resistance to authoritarian rule. The terms of this struggle could easily be understood within the more or less secular terms of political instrumentality, a contest between agents of “state” and of “society,” a struggle over information in which both sides claimed to act in the national interest. By contrast, the Danish cartoons manifested a form of European ethnonationalism, increasingly defined against an Islamic other, crystallized around a purported opposition between secular freedoms and religious sensibilities. But in both incidents certain ubiquitous ideas about the press come into play. Both cases center on the kinds of actions that can be attributed to the public circulation of verbal and visual signs, actions on which the authority of the press partly depends. In the Indonesian case, as I show, this point comes into sharper focus once state censorship is lifted and a host of new moral conflicts arise to shake the familiar assumptions about the press. At this point, certain parallels as well as contrasts between the Indonesian situation and the conflict between satirical Danes and pious Muslims become apparent. The juxtaposition of these cases casts into relief how semiotic ideologies can mediate moral claims in public.1
Across a wide range of social contexts and historical circumstances, the press has often been taken to be a special kind of historical agent. Journalists, editors, publishers, and the readers whose habits they help shape are often self-conscious, if not self-dramatizing, about their impact. Claudio Lomnitz (2008: 55) quotes the American journalist James Creelman, writing in 1901: “The modern editor is seldom contented unless he feels that he is making history as well as writing it.” Lomnitz (2008: 56) then remarks that “this expression captures the well-known ambiguity of the term history, which refers at once to events of the past and to their telling. Nowhere is this duality more patent than in journalism.” In the Indonesian case, Tirto Adhi Soerjo, who started the first indigenous newspaper in the Dutch East Indies in 1903, came to be celebrated as a principal founder of the nationalist movement ( Pramoedya 1985; see also Pramoedya 1980). Tirto referred to himself as the “defender of the common people” (pembela rakyat), anticipating what came to be the dominant image of the press in Indonesia a half century later, the “press of struggle” (pers perjuangan). Today this historical role is fossilized in the names of newspapers like the Voice of Freedom (Suara Merdeka) and the People’s Thought (Pikiran Rakyat) and in the slogan, appropriated by the leading newspaper, Kompas, from the nineteenth-century American satirist Mr. Dooley, “To console the poor, to remind the established” ( Manzella 2000: 306).2
In fact, strong views of the social efficacy of the press are commonly shared by both the press’s proponents and its opponents, across a wide range of social and political contexts. Efforts by states to control the press depend on assumptions about its social powers, its potential historical agency, that are often very close to those held by members of the press themselves. As Dominic Boyer (2003: 512) has written of the former East Germany, censorship could be seen as an intellectual vocation, “a kind of operation upon public language and upon public knowledge, . . . a productive intellectual practice” similar to the view that editors and critics took of their own work. The censor and the censored are united in their conviction that texts are in themselves potentially powerful and can serve as vehicles for their own social and historical agency and as catalysts for the agency of their publics.3 However the press does or does not act, it is, at least, commonly taken by its producers, consumers, and opponents alike to be a historical agent with special powers of objectification.4 What I want to emphasize here is that, among many other things, this objectification takes place within a moral domain. By “moral domain” I refer to the sphere of judgments and evaluations of persons and actions. I take this to be not inherently distinct from what is often called “the political”; rather, it is an element of those presuppositions on which the latter is grounded. By examining the actions imputed to the press, and the struggles to control or liberate the press as an agent, we can gain some insight into how morally loaded concepts such as “freedom” and “truth” enter into the world of politics and social practices. These are concepts that link morality and agency to certain ideas about language and other modes of signification. They are, that is, forms of semiotic ideology that mediate among communication, politics, and religion.
Here I approach concepts like “freedom” as social facts. Critics of liberal thought, such as Zygmunt Bauman (1988), among many others, often argue that concepts such as “freedom” are inseparable from relations of domination and inequality. Yet such critical approaches should not wholly displace empirical questions about the social lives led by ideas such as freedom and truth. If we follow the history of these ideas in particular concrete circumstances, we may find new purchase on the possibilities and the paradoxes those social lives involve. As I have argued elsewhere for the idea of “modernity” ( Keane 2007), regardless of the problematic character of such concepts as analytic tools or normative guides, we should at least take seriously the consequences of their global circulation and their interpellative power. Whatever we may conclude that freedom “actually is” — if such a question even makes sense — we must pay attention to its ubiquity as an idea people argue with and about and as a framework with reference to which people construct certain kinds of practices and institutions and argue about their legitimacy.
In what follows I offer some provisional thoughts about the underpinnings of these ideas in secularism and touch on some of the moral anxieties they can entail. I discuss two challenges to press freedom at opposite ends of the globe, one involving state realpolitik, the other ethnopolitics and religious transgression. By juxtaposing these very different events in quite distinct contexts, I argue that they shed light on certain common problems in semiotic ideology as it bears on the idea of freedom. In the Indonesian case, however, these problems became of significant public concern only after the end of state censorship and amid the growing commercialization of the media.5 Drawing on this argument, I then return to the question with which I began, the moral authority of the press.
The Banning of Tempo
In June 1994 the Indonesian newsweekly Tempo, along with two other magazines, was shut down by President Soeharto’s Ministry of Information after reporting on disputes within the regime over the purchase of ships, of dubious seaworthiness, previously owned by the former East German navy. Tempo, an unabashed clone of Time magazine, had been started twenty-three years earlier, not long after General Soeharto had seized power from Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno.6 Under the charismatic leadership of its founding editor, the poet and essayist Goenawan Mohamad, Tempo had by the 1990s become one of the most influential elite newsmagazines in Southeast Asia. In its early years Tempo had been identified with the more optimistic views about the possibilities represented by the transition from Sukarno’s efforts to blend nationalism and socialism to Soeharto’s promises of economic growth and technocratic modernity under his developmentalist New Order regime; over time the editors grew increasingly disenchanted. Goenawan was a master tactician, steering a careful course between criticism and caution that allowed the magazine to stay in print, while also retaining the respect of its readers through its ever more daring challenges, hinted and sometimes open, to official versions of reality. Those readers were primarily members of Indonesia’s tiny urban elite and middle classes. This readership was reflected in the steep cover price and the predominance of advertisements featuring luxury goods, often making ostentatious use of English. The articles were written in an innovative, lively, urbane, and allusive style of Indonesian not readily accessible to the majority even of the nation’s literate population. Like virtually all leading periodicals of the time, the magazine was implicitly secularist in tone (cf. Goenawan n.d.). The magazine’s circulation peaked at 190,000 at a time when the national population was approaching 200 million. (In the same period, Kompas, the staid newspaper of record, had a paid circulation of more than half a million and probably reached 3 million readers; figures for the leading tabloids were probably much greater [ Hill 1994: 13, 41].)
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I am grateful for the comments of Talal Asad, Dominic Boyer, Andy Graan, Zeynep Gürsel, Ariel Heryanto, Matt Hull, Saba Mahmood, Goenawan Mohamad, Adela Pinch, Elizabeth Povinelli, Patsy Spyer, Janet Steele, Karen Strassler, Adrian Vickers, Tom Williamson, and Tom Wolfe; members of the Social Science Research Council’s Religion, Secularism, and International Affairs Working Group; the School of American Research’s Voice and Modernity Seminar; the Michicagoan Linguistic Anthropology Workshop; the Chicago Political Communication and Society Workshop; the audience at the Columbia University Department of Anthropology; and the anonymous readers for Public Culture. My thanks to the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation for its generous support.
- For a distinct but complementary account of the centrality to secularism of what I am calling a semiotic ideology, see Asad 2006.
- For the history of the Indonesian press, see Adam 1995; Dhakidae 1991; Hill 1994; Romano 2003; Sen and Hill 2000; and Tickell 1987. Some good examples of the heroic vision of the press in different periods of Indonesian history are Atmakusumah 1992; Lubis, Tasrif, and Said 1992; Pramoedya 1985; and Yuliati 2000.
- In drawing on situations as distant as those in Indonesia and Denmark, I am assuming that ideas about the press can never be portrayed simply as matters of local knowledge. Like bureaucracies, nongovernmental organizations, laboratories, armies, religious missions, universities, advertising agencies, banks, and postal services, the press draws on globally circulating institutions, procedures, and norms. Journalists often measure themselves against standards whose origins and exemplars they readily locate elsewhere ( Ståhlberg 2006). In these respects journalists are the quintessential cosmopolitans ( Hannerz 2004); we might think of Karl Marx serving in the employ of Horace Greeley as a foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune. At the same time, the languages and the very terms of relevance, what makes the news newsworthy, are embedded in particular localities. In Indonesia the national language that dominates print media and television has at times seemed to imbricate the local and the cosmopolitan ( Keane 2003). And certainly journalistic writing responds to local expectations about narrative structure and linguistic form and takes place in a workplace shaped by local traditions of labor and authority.
- This was a self-conscious goal of the press within twentieth-century socialist states ( Boyer 2003, 2005; Wolfe 2005), but the objectification of social bodies through interpellative address (the incorporative “we” familiar from USA Today, for instance) was also important in more liberal political orders (see esp. Warner 1990); for an illuminating contrast, see Hasty 2005. A different but, I think, congruent view is suggested by James Siegel’s (1998: 61) remark about Tempo’s crime reporting, that “one question leads to another in such a way that a particular crime is made into a type and a national problem.” For more on the idea of objectification within moral narratives of modernity, see Keane 2007.
- Observers of Indonesia may point out that suppression of media has hardly disappeared, but it takes different forms and no longer has the pervasive, state-centric grip it had under Soeharto’s Ministry of Information.
- Steele 2005gives an insightful history of the magazine; see also Kitley 2001.