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Reviewed by:
  • Censorship in Colonial Indonesia, 1901–1942 by Nobuto Yamamoto
  • John Ingleson (bio)
Nobuto Yamamoto. Censorship in Colonial Indonesia, 1901–1942. Leiden: Brill, 2019. 294 pp.

The much-cherished rust en orde (tranquillity and order) of late colonial Indonesia was underpinned by a highly developed surveillance state. From the 1910s the state became worried about nationalist, labor, and religious movements stirring up the simple natives and threatening rust en orde. It responded by restructuring the police force, strengthening the mobile police brigade, and creating a political intelligence service that reported directly to the attorney general in Batavia. The political intelligence service recruited hundreds of informers in major towns and cities who needed to report in regularly to justify their retainers. They produced detailed, if not always accurate, reports on meetings of Indonesian organizations, and provided documents from closed meetings of nationalist parties and labor unions as well as a steady stream of rumors. Indonesian political and labor union leaders were well aware that informers attended their public meetings—they were hard to miss, as they usually sat in the front row and were often the target of humorous asides from speakers. These political and union leaders also knew that informers had infiltrated their organizations and regularly warned of the need to exercise caution and expel suspects. The federation of Sumatra plantation companies had its own intelligence service from the mid-1920s, employing informers on estates who produced regular reports, often of an alarming nature, about workers' activities. Dutch managers of plantations, sugar mills, and major companies were constantly alert for signs of political infection among their Indonesian workforces. At the first sign of worker protest, such managers telephoned the local resident or police superintendent, who would invariably send a posse of the police armed mobile brigade (Korps Brigade Mobil, Brimob) for a show of force or to make arrests. The territorial army was the ultimate weapon of state control. Strategically located throughout the colony, it was used during the large railway strike in 1923 to patrol railway stations and workers' neighborhoods as well as to evict strikers from their company-provided homes. After the failed PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia, Communist Party of Indonesia) rebellion of late 1926 and early 1927, the army was instructed to revise its plans for direct intervention in labor or political unrest. Surveillance and police and military intervention was backed by draconian laws that saw thousands of political and union activists jailed in the 1920s and 1930s, and under the constant threat of being exiled to Boven Digul, the prison camp in West Irian specially created for political prisoners after the failed communist rebellion.

Censorship in Colonial Indonesia is an extended analysis of another important instrument of the surveillance state in its constant effort to control not only what people did but also what they said and wrote. In discussing the state's surveillance of newspapers and periodicals in the last three decades of colonial rule, Yamamoto focuses on the two major instruments of censorship: the persdelict (press offences) and [End Page 119] persbreidel (press restriction) laws. Modeled on the British India Press Act of 1910, the prohibition on publishing persdelict articles was added to the colony's Penal Code in 1914. The types of articles considered persdelict were wide-ranging and their definitions broad, thereby making prosecutions difficult to defend. The writer of an article that expressed or instigated feelings of hostility, hatred, or contempt against the Netherlands or the Indies government could be jailed for up to seven years. Complemented by the even more encompassing "hate sowing" articles of 1923 and 1926,1 the persdelict law was a powerful weapon that the colonial state could and did wield against those it considered a threat to rust en orde.

There is an excellent chapter on the ways in which the colonial authorities applied the persdelict and the ways in which journalists responded. Yamamoto argues that there were three major responses: defiance, compliance, and diversion and defamation. The first response is illustrated with a detailed account of the trial of union and communist party leader Semaun in 1919; the second with an analysis of the writings of the Batavia journalist Parada Harahap; and the third...


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