Indonesian Lawmaker Crashes Over Porn Download

Indonesia has no shortage of self-appointed guardians of morality, men like Tifatul Sembiring, the minister of communication and information technology who has been a vigorous proponent of the harshly restrictive 2008 anti-pornography law.

So when a lawmaker and member of the rigid Islam-based Properous Justice Party (PKS) that Tifatul used to chair was photographed Friday in the chambers of the House of Representatives downloading and viewing pornography on his tablet computer, the action elicited howls of laughter, outrage and scorn nationwide.

The case underscores an ongoing cultural war here between hardliners who want to impose their vision of morality on Indonesia and the nation's pervasive ethic of pluralism and tolerance. Score this one for the live-and-let-live camp.

Online commentators, twitter feeds and chat rooms exploded, comparing the case of Arifinto, a little-known PKS lawmaker, and his tablet with the high-profile prosecution earlier this year of pop star Nazril "Ariel" Irham, who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison after private sex tapes circulated featuring him having sex with two of his girlfriends.

Ariel was not convicted of distributing the material but only of making it possible for someone else to distribute it by keeping the video on his laptop computer. A technician found the videos of the singer and two well-known local celebrity actresses and posted them on the Internet.

Arifinto resigned Monday under pressure from his party, which became a laughing stock over his faux pas. "On my own will, without any pressure from anyone, for the sake of myself and the party's honor, I will soon tender my resignation from the House of Representatives," Arifinto told a televised press conference.

It is unclear if Arifinto will find himself the target of legal action.

"I apologize to the Prosperous Justice Party, the cadres and to everyone at the House of Representatives. I will keep dedicating myself to my party," he said, promising to study the Koran and seek enlightenment from clerics in the aftermath of his downfall.

Arifinto initially tried to defend himself when a newspaper photographer posted pictures of him downloading the porn images at a House session, saying they were attachments to an email, which he promptly deleted.

The photographer, Mohamad Irfan from Media Indonesia newspaper, quickly stepped forward with more images and told interviewers the lawmaker was surfing at length through a menu of images before he found what he was looking for. He simply had not reckoned on a camera with a telephoto lens being able to see the action from the press gallery.

I can explain everything The party quickly said it would censure the lawmaker, adding over the weekend that it would investigate all gadgets owned by its politicians to guard against any further prurient material lurking inside party-approved computers.

Arifinto was a founder of PKS, which has its roots in a semi-underground university-based Islamic movement that began during the Suharto era when the former dictator banned religion-based politics. Since independence in 1945, fundamentalist groups have often sought to turn Indonesia into an official Islamic state, a goal the PKS supports.

Instead, the country enshrined pluralism into its constitution through the doctrine of Pancisila, which recognizes Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism as valid religions alongside Islam. The 2008 anti-pornography law was widely seen as a victory for Islamists bent on turning the nation into a religious state.

While Islamist parties have seen their share of the national vote gradually diminish since the end of the Suharto era allowed them to flourish openly, PKS remains a member of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's ruling coalition, albeit on increasingly shaky ground. It has been rumored for months that PKS could see its four cabinet seats halved or eliminated altogether in a looming cabinet reshuffle.

PKS has consistently broken with the administration on a number of issues, including a vitriolic and partisan House investigation last year into a 2008 bank bailout that eventually forced respected Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati out of office. She is now a Managing Director of the World Bank and is widely believed to be a possible candidate for president in 2014.

Communications Minister Tifatul has been a particular embarrassment. He has openly discussed going to war with Malaysia over cultural slights, said natural disasters were a punishment from God and joked about people with AIDs. After saying he would never shake hands with a woman who was not his wife, he was photographed grinning as he shook hands with US First Lady Michelle Obama during a state visit here earlier this year. His excuse was that she "forced" her hands onto his.

But while it is easy to dismiss Tifatul and now the porn-viewing ex-lawmaker as laughable figures, PKS and its allies have also given political cover to Islamist thugs like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which has led attacks on Christian churches, been implicated in violence against the minority Ahmadiyah Islamic sect and used vigilantes in various parts of the country to try and enforce "Islamic values."

According to a recent report on al-Jazeera, Islamist elements in the Indonesian military have been plotting to topple Yudhoyono using unrest spurred by the FPI and others, a possibility confirmed by political sources. Although not specifically linked to PKS, the supposed "plot" includes figures linked to PKS allies. The allegations, which include the names of individuals approached to serve in a "revolutionary" cabinet, have been allowed to die down with no action taken.

Yudhoyono has been widely criticized for his failure to rein in the PKS and its allies. In recent weeks, he has excluded PKS from political negotiations over the structure of his ruling coalition, however, a move political observers say was prompted by the PKS supporting quiet discussions in the House about a possible move to try and impeach the president as a way of embarrassing the current government.

For civil libertarians, it is enough this week to see the party that drafted the 2008 porn law, which could even make two-piece swimsuits and kissing on television illegal, brought low by the sight of one of its own gazing at his x-rated tablet in the same chamber where that law was debated and passed.

"The government must be more serious in overcoming pornography," the PKS-linked magazine Sabili wrote earlier this year. "Pornography is dangerous primarily because it uses the media. Information and communications technology and is growing rapidly making pornographic content easily and cheaply available."

Just how available – and how personally dangerous – a member of the magazine's advisory board, former Representative Arifinto, found out to his discomfort.