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(New York) - The Indonesian government should rescind its censorship of a film depicting a military atrocity prior to Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch called on the government to revoke the censorship board's sweeping powers to restrict the right to freedom of expression.

On December 1, Indonesia's censorship board, the Lembaga Sensor Film, communicated its decision to censor the film Balibo to the Jakarta International Film Festival, which then canceled its plans to screen the film the following week. The film, directed by Australian Robert Connolly, depicts a 1975 incident in which Indonesian soldiers are alleged to have summarily executed five foreign journalists in the town of Balibo in East Timor, now known as Timor-Leste, and subsequently killed a sixth journalist in the Timorese capital, Dili. The events occurred shortly before East Timor was invaded and annexed by Indonesia, which occupied the former Portuguese colony until 1999 when it gained independence in a United Nations-sponsored referendum.

"The Indonesian government should be protecting free expression, not censoring controversial films," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Balibo may very well provoke public debate about the military's past actions, but the Indonesian government shouldn't be afraid of that discussion."

On December 2, representatives of several Indonesian government bodies, including the official spokesmen for the Indonesian armed forces, Ministry of Defense, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, welcomed the censorship board's decision, saying that Balibo would have damaged Indonesia's diplomatic relations and cast its military in a negative light. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told Agence France-Presse that the decision was intended to protect Indonesia's image abroad. On December 3, armed forces Commander General Djoko Santoso also voiced his support for the measure.

Thus far, both the Jakarta International Film Festival and the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club have canceled planned screenings of the film in response to the censorship board's decision, citing concerns that failure to abide by the board's decision could trigger legal repercussions.

Human Rights Watch called on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to uphold Indonesia's obligations under international law and remove the censorship board's broad power to censor films. Indonesia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2006, which protects the right to freedom of expression. The right to free expression may be limited only to the extent strictly necessary for the protection of national security and public order.

"It's incredible that Indonesian officials believe that allowing their people to see this film would harm, rather than improve, the country's image abroad," Pearson said. "The government is missing a critical opportunity to show domestic and international observers that it is finally willing to open up closed chapters of history for public discussion."

Indonesia's official position on the Balibo incident has always been that the journalists were accidentally killed in crossfire between Indonesian soldiers and Timorese guerillas, and for a long time the Australian government accepted that position. However, in 2005, the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, known by its Portuguese acronym, CAVR, published witness testimony in its final report alleging that five of the journalists were deliberately killed by Indonesian forces and called for further investigation of the case.

In 2007, a New South Wales Deputy Coroner determined, on the basis of witness testimony and Australian intelligence documents, that five of the journalists were executed by members of the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus). In September 2009, the Australian federal police announced that they were opening a war crimes inquiry into their deaths, allegedly committed by members of Kopassus. Thus far, the Indonesian government has refused to cooperate with the investigators, stating that it considers the case closed and that the investigation could negatively impact the countries' bilateral relations.

Human Rights Watch has long called for Indonesia to hold thorough, independent and impartial investigations into abuses in East Timor and to hold perpetrators, whatever their rank, accountable. Yet to date, there has been almost no progress in holding members of security forces accountable for human rights violations. Under international pressure, Indonesia established an ad hoc tribunal on East Timor in 2000, but it acquitted 12 of the 18 defendants at the trial stage, and the remaining six were eventually acquitted on appeal.

"Instead of spending its time trying to airbrush from history what happened in East Timor, the Indonesian government should keep its promise to hold those who committed horrendous abuses, such as the killing of these six journalists, accountable," said Pearson.

Kopassus has a long history of serious human rights abuses, including killings, "disappearances," torture, and illegal arrests. Yet those who have committed or ordered abuses have been allowed to remain free. Research by Human Rights Watch has found that several Kopassus commanders convicted for serious human rights abuses by military tribunals for crimes such as the 1997-98 kidnapping of student activists in Jakarta and the 2001 killing of Papuan activist Theys Eluay were subsequently promoted in rank after receiving only light sanctions.

In June 2009, Human Rights Watch published a report about abuses by Kopassus in Merauke, Papua.

"The censoring of Balibo - like Indonesia's response to the Australian police inquiry - demonstrates its continued attitude of covering up past crimes and allowing the military to remain above the law," Pearson said. "But so long as soldiers implicated in crimes are promoted, not prosecuted, abuses will continue."

Indonesia's censorship board lacks the legal authority to issue an automatically enforceable ban, a step that can only be taken by a coordinating body chaired by the Office of the Attorney General. On December 3, in response to the board's decision, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen, or AJI), an Indonesian journalists' association, held two screenings of Balibo in Jakarta, for what it said were educational purposes. The Pantau Foundation, a media think tank, followed suit with a screening on December 4. Thus far, the government has not officially reacted to these screenings. However, the censorship board's decision to censor a film is a common precursor to an official ban and reflects the government's position that the film should not be shown.

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