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Censorship and Death Threats: Indonesia’s Worrying Shift on LGBT Rights

2016 has been a year in which the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people have been a prominent issue in Australian politics; both through the debate on the Safe Schools program, and the possibility of a plebiscite on legalising same-sex marriage. Our neighbour to the north has also been having a conversation about LGBT rights this year, however the Indonesian conversation has left many in the LGBT community fearing for their safety.

The sudden rise in hate speech towards LGBT people in Indonesia came as a surprise to many. It began in January when the Minister for Technology, Research and Higher Education called for a ban on LGBT people on university campuses, claiming they threaten “Indonesian morals and norms.” The Minister’s comments came in response to an organisation handing out leaflets at the University of Indonesia offering counselling for LGBT students, which he interpreted as attempting to proselytise their sexuality.

Since then there have been a series of anti-LGBT statements from public figures ranging from laughable to alarming. Censorship has increased: on 11 February a spokesman from the Ministry of Information requested social messaging app LINE remove any emojis or images “that smack of LGBT.” A request to which LINE acquiesced.

The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission has also now banned television and radio programmes that depict LGBT people living “normal” lives, as well as banning men who appear feminine from appearing on television. Vice President Jusuf Kalla told the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to cut funding to LGBT-rights education groups, saying they violate Indonesia’s “social values.”

The censorship of LGBT voices is a serious concern in any community, however even more worrying is the rise in hate speech and calls that incite violence that has been a feature of the year so far. In February, Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu described LGBT groups as attempting to “brainwash” through a type of “proxy war.” He even went so far as to say LGBT people are more dangerous than a nuclear war, which is not only offensive but indicates an alarming set of priorities for a Defence Minister.

On 25 February the former Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring tweeted that homosexuals should be killed. He has over one million followers.

The sudden increase in public statements of hatred towards LGBT people in Indonesia has reportedly led to the community establishing hotlines and safe-houses. Encouragingly, a school specifically for transgender students in Yogyakarta that was forced to close recently has vowed to reopen and continue their work at a new location.

Many are surprised by the speed and intensity of the shift against LGBT people in Indonesia over the last few months. While LGBT rights have often been a taboo topic in Indonesia, the sudden onslaught in anti-LGBT rhetoric is a serious cause for concern.

Human rights groups have been firm in calling for an end to censorship and hate speech against LGBT people. So far President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has remained silent on the growing trend in public declarations of hate against LGBT people. Elected on a human rights based platform and with the support of a large part of the LGBT community, Jokowi’s silence is disappointing.

While Australia has its own conversation about protecting and advancing the rights of our LGBT community, it is important that these concerning developments in Indonesia are not ignored.

Caitlin McCaffrie is a human rights consultant with a focus on the Indo-Pacific region, currently based in Phnom Penh.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image credit: Guillaume Paumier (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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