More good news for free speech in Asia

…which is a title I find myself shocked to be writing.

I’m not so young that I don’t remember the Sri Lankan “civil war” under President Suharto. The entire region was destabilized by sectarian violence that was a combination of ethnic and religious conflicts crystallizing in violence. I am, however, far too young to remember (or to have been alive for) Suharto’s decision to ban books that were considered a “threat to public order.” This decision has recently been struck down by the courts, 50 years later:

Rights groups in Indonesia are hailing a decision by Indonesia’s constitutional court to strike down a controversial book banning law. During the regime of former president Suharto, it was regularly used to clamp down on books and publications that were deemed dangerous by the government.

This is an interesting development, not just because it’s good news for free speech, but because there is currently a fomenting dictatorship in Sri Lanka, one that will not take well the idea that it no longer can enforce a stranglehold on what ideas its people are allowed access to. Well, at least not as overtly:

Activists say the constitutional court’s decision is a step in the right direction, but warn the government still has the means to ban books if it wants to. They say that officials could use Indonesia’s anti-pornography law and a 1966 regulation banning communist material as a way to outlaw sensitive material.

It is stories like this that make me more comfortable with the stance I took yesterday on Bolivia’s racism law. Restrictions on free speech are too tempting and convenient for those in power to use whenever they wish to stifle legitimate criticism. Nobody likes being criticized, myself included. As much as I might proselytize about evaluating people separately from their ideas, or claim to like being proved wrong, those are ideal-case arguments.

The fact is that nobody likes to be told they’re wrong. It’s how we react to those statements that are important. Do we debate, allowing those who disagree to voice their criticisms? Do we react and adapt to those criticisms? Obviously it’s hard to do that right away, but can we at least accept that the other side has a point (if they actually do)? Or do we shut down those who disagree, and cripple anyone’s ability to even bring up ideas?

Governments are no different from people – petty, protectionist, irrational, emotional – the difference is that we can create societies that ensure that governments don’t have to be different from people. We don’t have to pretend as though power is wielded by starry-eyed altruists who always have our best interests in mind. We can pass good laws that put limits on power, or strike down bad laws that give too much. This is one of those cases, and it’s a surprising piece of good news from a country that I was sure was about to spiral into oblivion.

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