The Press in the Dutch East Indies

Surabaya around 1919

Surabaya around 1919
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The democratic revolution in the Netherlands in 1848 also led the Dutch to realize that their government in the East Indies needed a new legal basis. Till then the government had been the responsibility of the king, who appointed a governor-general to rule in the East Indies. The constitution of 1848 provided for regularizing the legal structure of the government of the Dutch Indies. The decree on which this was to be based provided some general rules for the operation of the press in the colony. Specific cases, however, had to be dealt with through concrete regulations.

In 1856, after eight years of discussion, the press regulation was finally drafted in a document that shook the liberal elite in the Netherlands. The Dutch constitution included a certain measure of press freedom, but in the Indies there was no freedom at all. The regulations dealt only with preventive and repressive censorship. The preventive measures stipulated that in order to be a publisher or printer, such an intention had to be announced beforehand. Two hours before publication a journal had to be delivered to the local government office (which could forbid publication). Besides, the regulation provided for harsh punishments for scorn, libel, and slander against the governor-general. In spite of extensive debates and thorough criticism, the press regulation, named 'creation of darkness' by the Dutch liberal politician Thorbecke, was introduced without any modifications.

The size of the Dutch language press in the colonies mirrored the small Dutch upper class. From the middle of the nineteenth century, although the number of newspapers increased there were not many, and those had a limited circulation. The native press developed even more slowly, mainly because of the low literacy.
At the end of the nineteenth century the plantation economy grew quickly, and by the turn of the century the colonial government became increasingly engaged in East Indian society. It was guided by 'ethical politics', which was a paternalistic colonial policy that aimed to advance the well being of the East Indian population.

P.A. Daum

P.A. Daum

The European population increased as did the circulation and diversity of the European press, which led to more friction with the government. One of the better known conflicts was that concerning the journalist writer P.A. Daum of the newspaper Het Indische Vaderland [The Indian Fatherland], who in 1886 was sentenced to a month imprisonment because he had provoked 'scorn' on the government.

Gradually, however, the situation improved for the press. In 1906 the provisions for preventive censorship were abolished. What remained was the almost omnipotent governor-general, who ruled his large island empire as a prince and always kept a sharp eye upon the press.

Text: Huub Sanders