Indonesian TV censorship: cartoons cut, athletes blurred as conservative Islam asserts itself and broadcasters fear sanctions
Kissing scenes in Shaun the Sheep, swimsuits in Doraemon, even a female athlete on CNN – Indonesian TV censors are in overdrive, and internet streaming could be next. Some parents, though, welcome the oversight
It may not have been so unusual to hear earlier this year that the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) had issued a warning letter to a television station for airing a programme featuring a kissing scene.
It was not, though, part of a sexually charged, passionate embrace. The offending scene appeared in an episode of Shaun the Sheep, the British animated children’s series and spin-off of the popular Wallace and Gromit franchise.
The watchdog ruled that the programme, which aired in July, violated Article 14 on child protection and Article 16 on the limitation of sexual content in the Broadcasting Code of Conduct and Broadcasting Standards.
KPI spokesman Andi Andrianto told the South China Morning Post that the segment was inappropriate and unacceptable for a television programme aimed at young children. “The scene began with a ring falling between a woman’s breasts, and then the couple stared at each other and kissed,” he explains.
As the country’s supervisory body overseeing television and radio broadcasters, the KPI will file warning letters and demand that broadcasters stop showing content deemed to be in violation of the code of conduct and broadcasting standards. It does not issue fines. Instead, the KPI has the authority to revoke a company’s broadcasting permit after issuing a third warning letter. It is the responsibility of broadcasters to censor the content they air.
However, the situation has led to accusations of overzealous censorship among television stations, of which there have been a number of memorable cases in recent years involving children’s cartoons.
In 2015, Global TV cut several fight scenes from the Japanese animated show Dragon Ball for violating Article 17, which is intended to limit violent content, especially on children’s programmes. A few months later, a scene from the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants featuring the character Sandy the squirrel was shown with her body blurred because she was wearing a bikini. An episode of popular animated Japanese cartoon Doraemon was also censored because one of the female characters was wearing a swimsuit.
Such incidents have drawn the ire of many viewers, who have turned to social media to lambast both the KPI and broadcasters.
KPI chairman Yuliandre Darwis, in an interview with the Post, stresses that it is broadcasters who decide what to censor, and the agency’s job is merely to monitor the programmes that they air.
According to Darwis, the regulations stipulate that there should be no close-up shots of a person’s breasts, thighs or buttocks. It is not stated, however, whether the regulations also apply to animated characters. The quality control department of television stations must decide whether a scene should be censored based on the code of conduct and broadcasting standards.
“Of course, they need to have a clear understanding of the law,” Darwis says.
To facilitate this, the KPI holds workshops for broadcasters’ employees every month to familiarise them with the code of conduct and standards. However, because of limited space and budget, only 30 people can attend at a time.
Nina Mutmainnah Armando, a communications lecturer at the University of Indonesia and an activist at the National Coalition for Broadcasting Reforms, says the system of self-censorship and warning letters is flawed. She criticises the KPI for cherry-picking which programmes become the targets of warning letters.
Armando says the agency tends to issue warnings for what many viewers would consider to be trivial matters, while other issues such as breaches of journalistic ethics go unchecked. “There are more serious things that they should monitor,” she says.
Armando agrees that the KPI needs to perform its duty of monitoring programmes, but adds that self-regulation within the media and entertainment industry has become ridiculous.
“They blur [scenes] without looking at the context. For example, a swimmer in a swimsuit. That is an insult to our common sense. It’s misguided,” she says, referring to a 2016 case in which CNN Indonesia blurred the body of a female athlete who was competing in National Sports Week. The television station later issued an apology.
Not everyone is against strict censorship, however. Some parents argue that it is necessary to prevent children from watching programming that is inappropriate for their age.
Aprima Supratiwi, an Indonesian homemaker, limits television time for her two daughters, aged five and six. She bans them from watching soap operas, but allows them to watch cartoons at certain hours. Not all animated series are suitable for children, though, she says.
“Some cartoons are violent, and the characters use rude language. Others have kissing scenes. I don’t want them to be influenced by that,” she says. Regarding the blurring of cartoon characters, Supratiwi believes it helps to prevent children from being encouraged to dress inappropriately.
Overzealous censorship could be a result of broadcasters trying to conform with shifting cultural norms in the Muslim-majority country, which has in recent years been drifting in a more conservative direction.
Sumanto Al-Qurtuby, an assistant professor of anthropology at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia, says the trend towards conservatism among Indonesia’s Muslims is growing.
“I think Indonesians are followers. They like to follow the current trends, such as women wearing hijabs. But as to whether they do it because of religiosity or social pressure, this needs further study,” says Al-Qurtuby, whose research focuses on Islamic studies.
Indonesian television audiences have a good number of religious-themed shows to choose from, and programmes targeting pious Muslims are among the most popular.
In 2015, KPI statistics show, Mamah dan Aa Beraksi was the most watched television programme in the country. Hosted by prominent female Muslim preacher Mamah Dedeh, the show reached 44.7 per cent of the national television audience.
Meanwhile, the most popular Islamic-oriented sinetron (Indonesian soap opera), Tukang Bubur Naik Haji (Porridge Seller Goes on Haj), aired from 2012 to 2017 – running to more than 2,100 episodes – and is currently being rebroadcasted.
The monitoring of religious programmes also falls under the purview of the KPI. The chairman of the Preaching Commission at the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), Cholil Nafis, told BBC Indonesia in August that the MUI and KPI were planning to release a code of conduct for programmes hosted by preachers. Some preachers have been criticised for using their shows to spread hatred towards other religions, or for spouting misguided Islamic teachings.
In July, a cleric on the television show Islam itu Indah (Islam is Beautiful), broadcast on Trans TV, claimed that pious Muslim men who strictly adhered to the teachings of Islam would be rewarded with a sex party in heaven. His comment attracted widespread criticism online. In another programme, preacher Febri Sugianto stated that women who use menstruation pads and wear high heels would have difficulty bearing children.
According to Nafis, under the new code the MUI would supervise religious content in television shows, while the KPI would follow its existing practise of issuing warning letters and sanctioning broadcasters.
“MUI can guide the preachers on television and give them training … we can give input on which programmes are credible and competent,” he told the BBC.
The Indonesian government is in the process of discussing a revision of law No 32/2002 on broadcasting. According to Darwis, any changes would give the KPI more authority in dealing with television stations that violate the standards, possibly including the imposition of fines.
“This is an industry. They fear economic [sanctions] the most. For example, in Turkey, a fine will amount to 3 per cent of the station’s revenue [in the following month] if it is deemed to be violating regulations,” he says.
Going forward, Darwis says he hopes the KPI’s authority can be used to create wider awareness about broadcasting standards and encourage the production of more educational content.
The revision will also include the monitoring of digital content offered by internet streaming sites. Darwis says this is becoming a big issue because Indonesian audiences are increasingly turning to the internet for information and entertainment. He did not say whether standards for the internet would be as conservative as those that apply to television stations.
Supratiwi admits that her young daughters watch YouTube more frequently than television, but with close supervision. She says the internet has more interactive educational content to choose from.
“It would be better if this can be monitored as well,” she adds.