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A damper on a feast

Jakarta Post Editorial - February 7, 1997

The recent ruling announced by Waluyo, the deputy secretary general of the General Elections Institute that all campaign television speeches broadcast in the run-up to the upcoming general elections must be screened by the government before they go on air, sounds familiar. "The screening team will ensure that the speeches do not undermine (the state ideology) Pancasila slander government officials or attack other election contestants," Waluyo said.

We heard that familiar line five years ago. We also heard it ten, fifteen and twenty years ago every time a general election was to be held. In short, it is not a new rule. What is new, though, is perhaps the fact that this time the General Elections Institute is audaciously assuring the public that the screening is in no way a form of censorship 97. which is, of course, an absurd statement since to any sensible mind, screening in any manner is by definition a form of censorship.

It must be admitted that given the grave impact of the riots which have been occurring in alarming frequency recently, one can easily understand why the authorities are wary of any expressions of discontent or indignation that are made in public. The same, of course, goes for public gatherings, which in a worst-case scenario might become unmanageable and lead to public unrest.

The imposition of restrictions and censorship have somehow cast a shadow on the upcoming general election, which the government likes to dub a "festival of democracy". But surely a festival in which any of the merry-making parties-are barred from exercising their basic rights, such as the freedom of speech and expression, can hardly be called a festival of democracy, particularly if any of the parties, particularly the less influential ones, will be disadvantaged by the ruling.

But fear of possible unrest aside, the screening of the campaign broadcast speeches plus the ban on outdoor rallies is seen by many as an indication that the government is determined to ensure a "successful" general election in May and that whatever means that are necessary to ensure success must be taken. It is also within this context that the government last week issued a decree to restrict major gatherings by political and social organizations in the run-up to the May general election contrary to statements made by certain government officials last year.

These restrictions will surely disillusion many of the twenty million odd first-time voters who are looking forward to exercising their birthright as citizens of a free and democratic country by going to the polls.

Considering the present political balance in this country, there can be no doubt about the outcome of the upcoming elections. We fear, however, that the facts that have just been mentioned, plus the apathy that exists among wide sections of the public at large97any discerning observer can feel it by comparing the present mood to that prevailing during previous elections makes it doubtful whether one can truly call the upcoming national poll a "success".

Under the circumstances, as far as the minor participants in the event are concerned, the best thing that could happen is for the General Elections Institute to issue some supplemental decrees that could soften the rigor of the restrictions imposed and thereby open the door to all the participating parties to truly partake in this "festival of democracy.