A Nonsensical Indonesian Arrest

The release on June 25 of Erwin Arnada, the former editor of Indonesia's ill-fated edition of Playboy Magazine after serving nine months in prison for outraging public decency, closes a chapter that should never have been opened.

The Indonesian Playboy never printed an indecent picture. Arnada said he had started the edition because he wanted to print strong stories. However, just the notion of the brand, which has become a relatively staid publication in the United States, was enough to set off Islamic hard-liners, particularly the Islamic Defenders Front, known by its Indonesian initials FPI, which staged violent demonstrations, including physical attacks on the magazine's offices that were responsible for a climate of hysteria.

Although the magazine carried photos of women clad in undergarments, the pictures were far less revealing than those appearing in many Indonesian magazines peddled in Jakarta's magazine kiosks. Despite attempts by the country's Press Council to defend the magazine, which said it didn't contain pornography, the attacks grew and the FPI demanded that he be prosecuted.

The South Jakarta District court acquitted Arnada of the charges, ruling that the country's Press Law and not the criminal code governed the case. However, Indonesia's notoriously malleable Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling, sentencing the 47-year-old Arnada to two years in prison. The decision gathered international criticism from such organizations as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which called his imprisonment "politically motivated and should never have happened."

The Committee to Protect Journalists also gave Arnada a forum, allowing him to blog repeatedly on the organization's website, where he said he was shocked and humiliated by his treatment in which he was forced into a prison car by two truckloads of armed men who were "looking as though they were prepared to wage war in the airport. The first two days in Cipinang Prison, Jakarta's oldest, "were the hardest of my life. I have never thought I could be in a prison simply for publishing a magazine."

The case happened, he told reporters later, "because there was this absurd judicial process. There was a sentiment against an American brand and there was a game behind my case. I feel that I was treated unfairly and I am sure that my case was politicized by a group and they used the religious issue to fight against me."

Although he declined to name the FPI, the thuggish Islamist organization has been growing more and more violent, accosting women who are considered not to be dressed modestly and violently attacking night clubs. Despite Indonesia's reputation for its tolerant brand of Sunni Islam, intolerance has been growing and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has come under increasing fire for his refusal to rein in the firebrands.

Somewhat surprisingly, in April a group of housewives in North Sumatra forced FPI members to flee to safety after they sought to evict a woman and her newborn baby from a disputed property in the city of Medan. Media reported that although the FPI vigilantes escaped without injury, the rampaging housewives inflicted heavy damage on their car.

"I hope that what those housewives done would be followed by other people who are attacked by FPI, and the Police would not hesitate to take actions against them," a blogger wrote about the incident.

Although the Supreme Court reversed itself on May 25, ruling that the indictment by the prosecutors was wrong and couldn't be accepted, the ruling wasn't conveyed to Arnada's lawyers until nearly a month later. He was finally freed on June 24.

Arnada said he intended to return to the publishing business, although he declined to talk about reviving Playboy Indonesia, saying security concerns are too great. But, he told reporters as he left Cipinang, "My release is proof that freedom of the press in Indonesia is still respected, and I hope there will be no other journalists prosecuted as I have been under the Criminal Code."

He used his time in jail to write three books, and screenplays for three films, he told the Jakarta Globe.

"My first book is 'Midnite di Negeri Nonsens' ['Midnight in a Nonsense Country'], which will hopefully be published in the next few months. It is a testimony of my time in the Cipinang Prison," he said. "Another book, about religious tolerance, I also plan to turn into a film. The last book will be released in the US," he said, declining to give details on that work or the screenplays.

The editor said he plans a bilingual cultural magazine in Bali, which has already been launched in May. The Indonesian Playboy was shifted to Bali, predominantly Hindu and considerably more tolerant than much of the rest of Indonesia, after the violence forced the closure of the Jakarta office.