A trial pitting student journalists and the top official of a government-run university in this northern city has begun, in what is seen as a test case of Indonesia’s limits on censorship, free press and gay rights.
Two student journalists, Yael Sinaga and Widiya Hastuti, have filed a case against Runtung Sitepu, the rector of the University of North Sumatra (USU), following their “illegal” removal from the student-run website, Suara USU (The Voice of USU), earlier this year.
Outside of the court in Medan on Wednesday, several students shouted slogans calling for press freedom, while accusing Runtung of violating their right to free expression.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on the first day of the trial, Yael said she wants the court to overturn university’s decision to dismiss all the Suara USU staff, and order Runtung to reinstate them.
“This is the final step that we can take to overturn the rector’s decree. We have already tried a number of non-litigation methods, but nothing came out of any of them.”
The controversy first came about after the Suara USU website published what came to be known on social media in Indonesia as a “lesbian love story”.
The piece, entitled Everyone Refuses My Presence Near Her, tells the story of the challenges faced by a woman who is in love with another woman. It was written by Yael, the executive editor of the publication.
When the story was published on the publication’s website and Instagram account in March 2019, it went viral, prompting anger from the university authorities, who accused the students of “promoting homosexuality” and violating “the vision and mission of the university.”
The student journalists were then given 48 hours to vacate the Suara USU office and all 17 staff members were replaced.
The Suara USU website was also briefly shut down, although it is now operating again with new staff.