On March 20, 2019, North Sumatra University (USU) officials dismissed the student staff of a university newspaper, Suara USU, for publishing a fictional story about a same-sex couple.
On March 12, Yael Stefany Singa, the executive editor of the newspaper and a sixth-semester student in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, authored and published the fictional story, “Semua Menolak Kehadiran Diriku di Dekatnya” (translated as “Everyone Refuses My Presence Near Her”), to the website of the university newspaper, Suara USU. The story, about the challenges of a young woman in love with another woman, reportedly went viral over social media and became known as the “lesbian love story.” On March 20, suarausu.co was reportedly taken offline by its web hosting service in response to the story published on March 12. The hosting service reportedly informed Suara USU that it does not want to “accommodate sites that contain pornography and LGBT elements.” Within a few days, however, students republished the newspaper through another hosting service.
On March 25, USU president Runtung Sitepu summoned the eighteen student members of the newspaper and demanded they remove the story from the new website, claiming it “promoted homosexuality,” contained “pornography,” and contradicted USU’s values. The students refused to remove the story and in response Sitepu ordered them dismissed from their positions at Suara USU—the only student press organization at the university—and ordered that they vacate the Suara USU office within forty-eight hours. Sitepu also informed the students that he would oversee the next elections for the editorial staff. Suara USU was later restored to its original website and its staff were replaced.
On March 28, USU students held a campus demonstration to protest the dismissal of the students from Suara USU. Two student journalists removed from Suara USU, Sinaga and Widiya Hastuti, have filed a lawsuit against Sitepu, claiming that the dismissal order was illegal. A group of students and supporters called the Solidarity Alliance for Suara USU reportedly held a protest outside of the courtroom during the first hearing on August 14. Court proceedings are ongoing as of this report.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the dismissal of students from a university newspaper in retaliation for peaceful expressive activity—conduct which is explicitly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. University authorities have a responsibility to refrain from disciplinary measures intended to retaliate against or restrict non-violent expressive activity. In addition to the harm to immediate victims, such incidents undermine academic freedom, university autonomy, and undermine democratic society generally.