Faking the debate

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Irawan Ronodipuro
INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

IO – Hoax.  Fake News.  Slander.  These sort of accusations, which have become a popular way for ruling parties in electoral democracies to attack their opponents and simultaneously undermine democracy, have become increasingly commonplace in Indonesia over the past five years. This is especially true since the presidential campaign kicked off last year in earnest for the 2019 election:  if you were to believe the president and his spin doctors, everybody that criticizes or challenges him or his administration is guilty of some offense or punishable crime.

Jokowi’s legal apparatus, through its abuse of the Electronic and Transactions Law, or ITE, has victimized many of the president’s better known antagonists, such as the musician Ahmad Dani.  Dani, now sitting in jail, has become a sort of martyr and living testament to the sort of legal chicanery that is being deployed to silence critics. Yet, when it comes to talking about the truth and sticking with the facts, Jokowi has proven multiple times his hypocrisy—often he falsely accuses the opposition of hoaxes and fake news while, at the same time, he is busy himself spreading misinformation to the public in a bid to boost his popularity with the electorate.

A perfect example of such perfidy was readily on display during the second presidential debate.  Covered live on numerous television stations and followed by days of commentary in the electronic and print media, the debate was supposed to offer voters a chance to assess the candidates—Jokowi, for his achievements since entering office in 2014 and his aspirations for the future, and for Prabowo Subianto to articulate his own vision for a better Indonesia.

In parts, the debate was successful in giving voters what they deserved—a closer look at the candidates, their mastery over critical policy issues and their platforms.  In other parts, however, after having carefully scrutinized Jokowi’s statements about his achievements in office, it is clear the president grossly distorted the facts.

In one instance, in a session about environmental policy, Jokowi made the bold assertion that “there have been no land or peatland fires in the past three years, and it is because of our hard work.”  Such a feat, if it were true, would be sufficient cause for international environmental groups to heap awards upon the president.  A simple fact check, however, reveals Jokowi’s claim to be entirely false:  according to non-government agencies monitoring fires, over the past three years there have been more than eight thousand hotspots across Indonesia, out of which nearly three-and-a-half thousand occurred on peatland.

In another instance, in a discussion about food security, Jokowi tried to defend his administration’s food import policies by claiming food imports have actually been on the decline.  This came as a big surprise for anybody who knows something about Indonesia’s notorious food cartels and how they have hurt domestic farmers.  Using the example of corn imports, Jokowi falsely stated only one-hundred-eighty thousand tons were imported in 2018—in fact, the national statistical board reported imports were four times higher.  At the same time, agricultural experts have pointed out while corn imports have declined since Jokowi took office, wheat imports have surged since it is used as a substitute for corn in animal feed.

After the debate, when the facts to the contrary were presented to Jokowi, the president disingenuously replied he was correct since the data came from his ministries, which was then backed by Minister of Trade Enggartiasta Lukita, saying the data was accurate since it referred to the actual amount of corn imported for food consumption alone.

Jokowi’s campaign of misinformation continued when, asked about land disputes involving infrastructure projects, he said “there has been no conflict with local residents during the land release process.”  Greenpeace, an international NGO, has a different version of disputes—in a steam power project located in Central Java, for example, over seventy people were forcefully evicted from their land.  But Greenpeace is not the only reliable source of truth:  researchers from Indonesia, who monitor land disputes related to infrastructure, have counted more than ninety such disputes in 2017 alone.

Calling out the facts and letting the public know when their president is being dishonest is normally an important task left to the media in any democracy.  But as we have reported in the past within these pages, the conglomerate owners who control the local media rarely criticize the president for his faults.  Hence it is left to the alternative and social media to uncover the truth.

Still, more can and should be done.  Given the media’s bias, the organizer of the presidential debates, the National Elections Commission,  should demand local media provide comprehensive fact-checking services for their viewers.  Many claims and statements are given by the candidates during each debate, and instead of opining about who ‘won’ the debate, the Commission should instruct media owners who are given rights to cover each debate to present credible, fact-based content analysis in post-debate programming.    After all, voters deserve not only to hear opinions—they also should be served the facts, without which our democracy becomes nothing less than a sham.