The presidential election is moving closer to a finale now that the Constitutional Court is hearing the challenge of the losing Prabowo Subianto-Hatta Rajasa candidate pair, but there are many things that we can learn from and discuss about the role of the media in this year’s race for the presidency.
It is obvious that the mainstream media, both print and television, were biased toward presidential candidates because of the political affiliation of the media owners. We also saw smear campaigns sponsored by publications, such as Obor Rakyat, hide behind journalism; television station offices came under attack by members of a political party in protest of news report that they deemed inaccurate; and the media endorsed a certain candidate pair as shown by The Jakarta Post.
The media plays two basic functions during elections. First, it provides basic information about presidential election mechanisms to provide information on the track record of each candidate. That kind of information is considered the basis for citizens to determine their political preferences.
Second, the media is consciously partisan and constructs information with the aim to influence audiences to vote for the candidate they support through continuous news broadcasting of the preferred candidate at the expense of the others. Ironically, this media partisanship works by violating the journalistic code of ethics.
These functions even replace the role of political parties in disseminating the vision and mission of the candidates. This is the era of mediated politics. The media effectively works in shaping a candidate’s image in the public eye.
The influence function exceeded the objective function of providing information to citizens in the presidential election. The majority of the media showed a vulgar partisan attitude. It was clearly not a good political education for citizens.
We actually saw how public opinion split into two, with each side accessing the news media that they wanted to believe. We found it difficult to access objective information that could be accounted for. Huge amounts of news were biased by the political preferences held by media owners.
The one-sided media coverage split the nation, which certainly ran counter to journalism’s obligation to fight for the public interest.
As Robert McChesney puts it in his book Rich Media, Poor Democracy; Communication Politics in Dubious Times (1999), slow depoliticization occurred. Though a society looks politically literate, if it is continuously flooded with political information, it will eventually feel saturated.
Depoliticization symptoms are marked by a lack of public attention about substantive political issues. Politics changes shape into a mode of entertainment that makes us complacent about the conversation on the platform of each presidential candidate. At the same time, the news that dwells on the figures only gives the public the options of like or dislike.
In other words, press freedom, which should give the media space to work objectively and impartially, is misused as a tool of propaganda for the sake of political interests.
Therefore, the recent election should teach us several lessons.
First, the government, through either the Press Council or the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI), should set clear and unequivocal regulations regarding media ownership, especially those outlets belonging to politicians. The government should ensure diversity of ownership and content in the media industry.
The issue may not pose a problem for print and online media, but will endanger public interests when it comes to the television industry. Television channels use public frequency, holding them accountable for balanced and fair space for all candidates.
Due to the high viewing rate of Indonesian televisions, which nears 90 percent, the government must dare to evaluate the use permit of the frequency if a TV station is found guilty of violating the principle of balanced reporting.
Second, a strict firewall for journalists who are involved in practical politics should be imposed. This year a lot of journalists contested the legislative election or joined the campaign team of a candidate in the presidential election. Ironically, they maintained their roles as journalists.
The Press Council at one point called on the journalists to quit as media workers or take leave so as to keep them from involvement in editorial policy. As the requests fell on deaf ears, journalist associations like the Indonesian Journalists Association (PWI), the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Indonesian Television Journalists Association (IJTI) should enforce the rules of the game.
Third, we should encourage media endorsement as a new tradition in elections. In established democracies such as the US and the UK, media endorsement is a common practice. It is important to show, at least, the media’s stand in the election. Such a practice will show the public a media that pretends to be neutral but in practice favors a particular candidate.
Of course, media endorsements should not ignore journalistic principles. Even if a media outlet supports a candidate, it should not give privileges to the candidate at the expense of other candidates. The editorial preference should not sacrifice media independence and, hence, integrity.
Above all, pressure is now mounting on the media to restore public confidence and reestablish its responsibility to fight for the public interest.
(Tulisan ini pernah dimuat di Jakarta Post)