In an emergency situation, is authoritarian measures needed to save lives?

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Wijayanto, LP3ES; Center for Media and Democracy: Findings of LP3ES research about the Government’s political communication during the pandemic shows a pattern of ignoring scientists’ warnings. (Photo: Prive. Doc)

IO – Wijayanto, a researcher from the LP3ES Center for Media and Democracy, announced the findings of LP3ES research on the pattern of the Government’s political communication during the pandemic. He concluded that Government communication tends to ignore the warnings of communication experts on effective communication during crises. There are five signs that the Government has communicated poorly during the pandemic: 

First, the Government lacks responsiveness. It was slow to respond to the statements of the scientific community about the possibility of Corona being present in Indonesia, made since January 2020. Second, Government communication lacks consistency – for example, in the suggestion that citizens do not return to their hometowns or villages for Eid-el- Fitr. Third, Government lacks clarity and does not present data in a simple enough manner for all citizens to understand. “Next, Government information lacks accuracy: data relied on by the Central Government does not match that of Regional Governments. Finally, there is a lack of transparency. The Government has been covering up information about Corona, whether the fact that it is on the way or that the number of patients has surged. This results in panic and loss of public trust,” Wijayanto said in LP3ES’s weekly discussion themed “Let Science Guide the Way: Encouraging Research-Based Policy during the Pandemic” held on Saturday (09/05/2020). 

Herlambang P. Wiratraman, Lecturer in Airlangga University’s Faculty of Law, stated that the anti-science tendency of Government narrative is nothing new. In fact, it also occurs on campuses. This tendency has the following indicators: 

First, the Government of Indonesia continues to restrict the academic freedom of researchers who want to publish the results of their research. Researchers who announce study results might even be prosecuted and jailed. Furthermore, foreign researchers have been deported and campus discussions have been terminated by force. Second, science is subordinated under politico-economic power. Campuses as the medium for the development of critical thinking are repressed. Third, the new Law on National Science and Technology System Number 11 of 2019 validated last year restricts academic freedom because one of its articles rules that researchers can be charged with a crime if they perform “dangerous” research without Government permission. Fourth, campuses are being “disciplined” (i.e. bureaucratized) and feudalistic principles reign. “This is the fruit of the politico-economic indoctrination that has been incubating since the New Order Regime, causing campuses and/or knowledge to be stunted,” he said. 

Similarly to Herlambang, Inaya Rakhmani, a Lecturer of the University of Indonesia’s Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, stated that though the Indonesian Government’s anti-science attitude during the COVID-19 pandemic is unfortunate, it is hardly unique. Many countries all over the world take this stance: for example, the USA has been showing symptoms of right-wing populism. When we look deeper, populism is a backlash against the bad effects of neo-liberal economic transformation. Thanks to this economic view, more and more people suffer from social dislocation. The briefness and ambivalence of populistic narratives are highly useful, as they are effectively mobilized in high-pressure political situations. “The shorter populistic narratives are, the more useful they are to political elites in mobilizing public sentiment. This is because there are actually many social groups and organizations involved in identity-based politics, each with their own social interests and backgrounds. Therefore, science, with its function of explaining, identifying, connecting, and analyzing issues, is a sworn enemy of right-wing populist regimes,” she said. 

Inaya further stated that this situation does not occur during social vacuum only. Indonesia’s history of intellectual development shows that our scientists and academicians have a long tradition of using knowledge as an instrument for furthering the interests of the regime. “Therefore, it is important to differentiate research for applied purposes, whose findings are used to resolve issues before one’s eyes, to basic research whose knowledge is meant for issues that may not have existed yet. By maintaining the social process of seeding and forming research and basic knowledge, we would also turn out humans who are able to think critically outside the box, and thus are not carried away by the flow of politico-economic power,” she said. 

With this consideration, it is important for us to protect academic freedom through the rules of both the Government and colleges. The dream of establishing a world-class university and excellence as frequently expressed by the Government cannot be made a reality if scientists cannot announce findings outside what is normally acceptable by the market. Social imagination is extremely limited, as individual academicians do not feel safe thinking outside of habituated ideas. Even worse, the political regime that cannot accept scientific criticism indicates that Indonesia is repeating its previous pattern, i.e. an authoritarian regime – but one maintained through the illusion that the State is based on democracy. 

Emergency Situation 
On the contrary, Daniel Dhakidae, the Editor in Chief of LP3ES’ Prisma, suggests that an authoritarian approach may be inevitable in the current emergency. The Corona Virus is an absolutely new plague and it caught the world by surprise with its strange characteristics. In order to mitigate the pandemic, the Government must mobilize its “authoritarian” system – in this case, a strict structure with a clear command system, which will move any and all of its parts without question when an order is given. This is why China has handled the Corona effectively, while it takes longer in democratic countries. “However, this is a special emergency situation, which literally deals with life and death. Such an emergency is within the authority of the President. This is the big test of Jokowi’s leadership. We have trouble in facing our own system, such as regional autonomy, when this disaster occurs. Anyone who must make big decisions will naturally face difficulties,” he said. (Dan)