Protecting journalism key to arresting democratic decline: Nobel laureate

As a number of countries, including Asean members, tread a path toward autocracy, the onus is on journalism to uphold its duty to keep democracy alive, the facts straight and power in check.

Dio Suhenda

Dio Suhenda

The Jakarta Post


Senior journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa speaks during a discussion hosted by The Jakarta Post in Jakarta on Aug 7, 2023. PHOTO: THE JAKARTA POST

August 8, 2023

JAKARTA  – With the proliferation of military coups and crackdowns on civil liberties in recent years, the world has been contending with acute democratic regression in many quarters, made worse by widespread misinformation that has rendered civic spaces less effective and more hostile.

As a number of countries, including ASEAN members, tread a path toward autocracy, the onus is on journalism to uphold its duty to keep democracy alive, the facts straight and power in check. This need is particularly pressing in Indonesia, which is just months away from holding a general election.

Speaking at a dialogue held by The Jakarta Post on Monday as part of the newspaper’s 40th anniversary celebrations, Timor-Leste President José Ramos-Horta lamented the woes democracy had seen in recent years, particularly the putsch and continuing human rights violations in Myanmar, an ASEAN member state.

“Right now, in the heart of ASEAN, in Myanmar, tens of millions of people are hostage in their own country, and they feel abandoned, betrayed by the international community,” Nobel Peace laureate Ramos-Horta said in his opening remarks.

Ramos-Horta’s statement came after Timor-Leste, which is looking to join ASEAN, expressed frustration with the 10-country bloc, currently chaired by Indonesia, for its sluggish progress in settling the Myanmar conflict.

A small island nation marked by a bloody fight for independence, Timor-Leste has gone against the global grain to make strides in upholding its democracy since gaining independence in 2002.

Read also: Timor Leste still on for ASEAN, says Ramos-Horta

In contrast, Thailand’s general election winner Pita Limjaroenrat was blocked in June by Bangkok’s military-backed incumbent government from becoming prime minister. This was followed by Cambodia’s one-sided general election, fraught with threats and suppression, that continued the political dynasty of longtime strongman Hun Sen.

Political analysts have noted that Indonesia is not free of democratic backsliding. They point to the country’s new Criminal Code, passed last year, along with renewed efforts to bring the military back into civilian affairs, as evidence that aspects of the New Order are returning, 25 years after the autocratic regime was toppled.

Turning point

But democratic regression is not a just problem for Southeast Asia. A report published earlier this year by Swedish democracy watchdog the V-Dem Institute found that the world was witnessing a decline in democracy to levels last seen in 1986.

“I feel that by the end of next year, if nothing significant changes, democracy will fall off a cliff,” cofounder and CEO of Philippine news website Rappler Maria Ressa said during the Post’s seminar.

Ressa said the outcome of Indonesia’s general election, along with the presidential elections in the United States and Taiwan – which will all be held next year – would be a make-or-break point for global democracy.

The US and Indonesia are the world’s second- and third-largest democracies, respectively.

“Globally, we have been electing illiberal leaders democratically […], and if the pattern continues, illiberal leaders will crumble state institutions from within,” said Ressa, who is also a Nobel laureate.

Read also: Two Nobel laureates to headline ‘Post’ democracy forum

Aside from poor leadership, she continued, democracy was also facing pressure from swaths of misinformation and hate speech on social media, and these platforms had made the public more distrustful and more easily provoked than ever before.

This was because of how social media algorithms were engineered, Ressa said, as most platforms made it easier for controversial content to go viral, as opposed to actual news and factual information.

“Without facts you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these three, we have no shared reality, we can’t have a rule of law, and we can’t have democracy. If you don’t have integrity of facts, you can’t have integrity of elections,” she said.

Journalism remains key

Ressa said Indonesian media companies and traditional journalism were strong short-term solutions to combat misinformation heading into next year’s election, while authorities should also come up with mid- and long-term solutions that relied on legislation and better media education.

Read also: Indonesia’s democracy ‘deteriorating’ over past five years

Senior journalist Bambang Harymurti said “ethical journalism” could counter misinformation and disinformation found on social media.

“If everybody knows how to consume information and can tell the difference between ethical journalism and work made outside of [the boundaries of ethical journalism], we’ll be fine,” he said on Monday.

Bambang, a former chief editor of Tempo magazine, drew a connection between the current social media landscape and sensationalist journalism, sometimes called yellow journalism.

“People tend to forget that since the printing press was created, yellow newspapers have always had a higher circulation, and that’s okay, since people only read [such papers] for entertainment. When they want to make a decision, they rely on good-quality journalism,” he added.

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