Utan Kayu defends free speech

July 2005 -

Utan Kayu, the political-cultural centre in Indonesia, defends free speech. 'Which is not an easy mission,' says author and literary critic Hasif Amini. He is a member of the small but growing community of artists, scientists and journalists established in 1994. From a modest building in Jakarta, Komunitas Utan Kayu strives to promote the liberalization of their society, with its more than 240 million inhabitants.

'We organize public debates,' Amini explains. 'About the role of women, for example, or the position of ethnic minorities.' Utan Kayu also has a theatre, gallery, library, bookshop and café. 'Art plays an important part for us. Because it stimulates new ideas and offers surprising perspectives on known issues.'

Each month the centre presents a programme with music, theatre, expositions and discussions. Festivals are also regularly organized: in August centering on literature, and next year focusing on film. There is no shortage of media attention: Utan Kayu is also home to a national radio station and maintains excellent contact with the press.

State censuring has diminished significantly since president Suharto, who had governed the archipelagos with an iron fist for more than thirty years, was ousted in 1998. Current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - the first to be elected - has given cause for Amini to be 'moderately optimistic' with already some visible results in the areas of democratization and fighting corruption.

'But in recent years, free speech has been threatened from an entirely different corner,' says Amini. 'The conservatives and fundamentalists.' These groups want to bring the largest Muslim country in the world back to the 'pure Islam'. Their activities vary from terrorist attacks and book burning to campaigns advocating legal punishment for 'pornographic' artistic expressions and for offending the authorities. In response, Utan Kayu established the Liberal Islam Network in 2001. This group of enlightened Muslims publishes, debates and campaigns internationally. Introducing a new chapter to the Indonesian battle between the pen and the sword.