Queer Indonesians Are Being Arrested Under a Vague Anti-Porn Law



This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

When United States Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart tried to rein in the courts’ inconsistent definitions of obscenity and pornography, he famously skirted an attempt to provide a concrete definition of what’s obscene and instead declared “I know it when I see it.”

Today, 53 years later and some 10,000 miles away, the same battle is playing out in Indonesia in a very different way. The country decided to implement laws banning the possession, distribution, and production of pornography in 2008 after much heated debate. But Indonesian lawmakers also included provisions outlawing pornoaksi (“porn action,” in English) in the bill, deciding to clamp down any “actions deemed indecent.”

But how, critics asked, do you define indecency? The bill’s pornoaksi clause opened the door to the prosecution of anything deemed indecent by officials, including, but not limited to, strip clubs, miniskirts, and traditional dances. Indonesian authorities seem to “know it when they see it,” and “see it everywhere,” too.

Especially when it comes to the country’s increasingly persecuted LGBTQ community. In late May, Jakarta police raided a gay sauna in the neighborhood of Kelapa Gading, arresting 141 men and charging at least ten under the anti-pornography law. The reason? “There were gay people who were caught strip-teasing and masturbating on the scene,” Jakarta police spokesman Raden Argo Yuwono told BBC Indonesia.

It was a similar story earlier in the month when police in Surabaya raided a so-called gay party being held in two hotel rooms. They arrested 14 men, charging eight with violation of the pornography law after officers caught the men engaging in “deviant sexual acts” and watching gay porn.

Local police told reporters that the raids were the first of their kind in the city, which has a population of 6.4 million people.

“This is the first time we’ve enforced the law and arrested gay people in the city,” Shinto Silitonga, Surabaya police’s head of detectives, told Agence France-Presse.

The increasingly wide reach of the pornography law—especially in raids targeting the LGBTQ community—is raising concerns among legal experts and human rights groups about the state’s creeping reach into private matters and closed-door activities between consenting adults.

“Indonesian police are again violating the basic rights of LGBT people by invading their privacy,” Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said after one raid. “The Surabaya raid subjected these gay men to traumatic humiliation, puts two at risk of long prison terms, and threatens the privacy rights of all Indonesians.”

Homosexuality is only illegal in Indonesia’s conservative Aceh Province, where authorities are allowed to enforce their own version of Sharia law. Nationally, there are no laws criminalizing homosexuality, sodomy, or lesbian sex. Instead, authorities are using the pornography law to prosecute those detained in these raids—charging gay men with a penalty that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

“There’s an effort to marginalize people, those with certain sexual orientations seen as deviant,” Muhammad Isnur, the chairman of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute Foundation (YLBHI), said. “That’s exactly what we’re criticizing. Regarding the arrest of the homosexuals in Kelapa Gading, there’s something odd about the arrest and the laws being used.”

Amnesty International has urged the central government to re-address the long-standing concerns with the pornography law and put a stop to the raids of hotels, underground gay clubs, saunas, and private residences.

“The Indonesian government must revise its pornography laws so that they cannot be misused in this way,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s deputy director of campaigns. “Rather than peddling blatantly homophobic rhetoric, the authorities should focus [their] efforts on creating a safer, inclusive environment for the LGBT community in the long term.”

The Constitutional Court ruled against efforts to overturn the bill in 2010, deciding that the definition of “pornography” as basically anything that was disseminated “through various mass media or public displays that can arouse sexual desires and/or violate public moral values” was clear enough.

The court’s lone female judge, Maria Farida Indrati, offered the dissenting opinion, stating that “the law could lead to public judgments among the people because of different definitions of the term ‘pornography.'”

A legal expert likened the pornography bill’s unparalleled reach to that of a totalitarian state at the time of the Constitutional Court challenge. Airlangga University lecturer Jeoni Arianto argued that the law was “a clear attempt to standardize the moral values of our society. But one’s morality depends on their values and culture, and therefore it’s impossible to set a sweeping generalization when it comes to it.”

It’s a debate that continues today. The pornography bill is still vaguely worded and open to interpretation, making it ripe for misuse or overreach by authorities reacting to a rise in public pressure to crack down on certain individuals deemed a threat to the nation’s morality.

Without a redrafting of the law or its outright repeal, these questions about the role of the state in private lives will, in all likelihood, continue to haunt the country, explained Asep Komarudin, head of the research division at the Jakarta Legal Aid Network (LBH).

“The pornography law still doesn’t have a strict definition,” Komarudin said. “Its implementation is also very subjective and susceptible of being misused. It’s still up for debate today whether private lives should be subject to criminalization.”

Adi Renaldi



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