Removal of socially critical murals seen as new attack on freedom of expression

CNN Indonesia – August 14, 2021
'Forced to be well in a sick country' mural in Bangil before being removed by authorities – August 13, 2021 (CNN)

Jakarta – Jakarta State University (UNJ) sociologist Ubedilah Badrun has criticised the actions of authorities in removing murals containing social criticisms of the government such as a mural depicting President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo with the message "404: Not Found" in Tangerang and a mural reading "Forced to be well in a country that is sick" in Pasuruan.

According to Badrun, the removal of the murals is a new form of repression and silencing of criticism.

"The actions of authorities in removing these socially critical murals in the perspective of democracy is a new form of repression and silencing [of criticism] which conflicts with the principles of democracy", said Badrun when contacted on Saturday August 14.

Badrun also criticised the authorities for going as far pursuing the people who drew the mural.

Badrun explained that murals are an expression of the soul, feelings and aspirations or symbolic criticism through painting on walls or surfaces which are permanent in character. Because of this, according to Badrun, murals represent artistic works.

As artistic works, said Badrun, they can only be evaluated and debated. Moreover mural art works which contain social criticism cannot be judged, let alone removed without discussion.

Badrun also explained that the phenomena of social criticism through murals is a sign that protests through other channels have been largely curbed and are no longer being heard by those in power.

"So socially critical murals are an expression of the ordinary people's aspirations which have been gagged", he said.

The National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) has also commented on the removal of the murals. According to Komnas HAM Commissioner Beka Ulung Hapsara there are norms and standards that can be used as guidelines for regulating freedom of expression.

"There are several aspects that can be used as a measure of restrictions on artistic expression. National security, public safety and public order. Meanwhile in terms of content, there was no spreading of lies, no SARA [incitement to racial, religious or ethnic conflict] or hate speech", said Hapsara.

According to Hapsara, freedom of expression – including the mural depicting Widodo with the writing "404: Not Found" which have been popular on social media – are still within the stipulations above, so they cannot be said to be violations.

Just recently, the authorities removed two murals containing social criticisms. The first case to grab public attention was a mural with a face resembling President Widodo but with his face covered with the message "404: Not Found".

The mural, which was located in the Batuceper area of Tangerang city, Banten province, has already been removed by the authorities. Police are also looking the person or persons which drew the mural.

Then there was a mural reading "Forced to be well in a country which is sick" in Bangil, Pasuruan regency, East Java, which suffered the same fate. The mural was removed by the authorities who deemed it as violating public order.

The mural "Forced to be well in a country which is sick" was painted on the wall of a vacant house in Bangil several days ago. Aside from the message, the mural depicted two characters in the form of animals. The artist remains unknown.

The authorities in Bangil removed the mural based on an order from the Pasuruan regency Public Order Agency (Satpol PP). (dmi/vws)

[Translated by James Balowski. The original title of the article was "Sosiolog Kritik Penghapusan Mural: Bentuk Baru Represi".]