Indonesia Has an Urgent Need for Political and Media Literacy Education

Indonesia Has an Urgent Need for Political and Media Literacy Education
Credit: Reuters / Willy Kurniawan
Why you need to know

Indonesia, like much of the democratic world, suffers from bad actors damaging the country's political understanding.

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In the aftermath of a Jakarta gubernatorial election which strengthened the tendency of some people in using religion as a “tool” to win seats in politics in Indonesia, the flood of hate speeches, hoaxes and slander within the country has increased massively.

In Jakarta’s election, the subject of Muslim vs anti-Muslim, for example, was deployed by those who oppose the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, claiming that Jokowi is pro-Chinese and anti-Islam, backing his former vice governor in Jakarta, a Chinese Christian Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as “Ahok”) who was imprisoned after stating, in one of his campaigns, that Muslims had been deceived by a verse in the Qur’an which states that they should not elect non-Muslim leaders.

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Credit: Reuters / Bay Ismoyo
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (L), popularly known as Ahok, speaks to his lawyers after his sentencing during the guilty verdict in his blasphemy trial in Jakarta on May 9, 2017.

Jokowi’s side, meanwhile, used the label of Muslim fundamentalists or anti-Chinese for those who were criticizing Jokowi. As an example, Purnama’s opponent in Jakarta gubernatorial election, Anies Baswedan (who is now the governor of Jakarta), was categorized as a hard-line Muslim.

Such identity politics continued to be prevalent during the recently concluded 2018 regional elections. In the midst of these conditions, Indonesia’s General Election Commission, which regulates the country’s elections, did not administer sanctions that can deter the use of identity politics in the elections.

As Indonesia approaches its April 2019 presidential election, this phenomenon is growing even more. Those who are active on social media are often exposed to mis- and disinformation and other inaccurate, slanderous content. This can happen to those who are highly educated, those who identify as being religious, and those who consider themselves nationalists or otherwise as defenders of the values of Indonesia.

This should serve as a wakeup call for the importance of political education to enable Indonesia to maintain a healthy and peaceful democracy.

Political education is thus important

One of the causes of this situation is that, in modern Indonesia, political education has turned into negative political propaganda full of distortion. Real political literacy – a critical aspect in the consolidation of democracy – is often nowhere to be found in Indonesia.

Political literacy is understood as a practical understanding of concepts taken from everyday life and language; an effort to understand about political issues, the major players, and how their tendencies influence themselves and others. In other words, political literacy is a compound of knowledge, skills and attitudes regarding politics.

In the context of elections, political literacy is understood as the ability of citizens to define their needs for political substance – especially those concerning electoral campaigns and choices. A high level of political awareness will usually be followed by activities to organize and form rational voter networks in a transactional process with leaders who will be given the mandate of power.

Political literacy is closely related to citizens’ critical understanding of the main aspects of politics, concerning people’s understanding of politics itself and aspects related to the concept of the state, power, decision making, general policy, division and allocation. These are the main things which must be understood by citizens to actively participate in politics.

In Indonesia today, this real political education is lacking.

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Credit: Antara Foto / Irsan Mulyadi / Reuters
Students pray at Ar-Raudhatul Hasanah Islamic boarding school on the first day of Ramadan in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia June 6, 2016.

For starters, political education and media literacy are not taught in schools. Beyond this, the election environment in Indonesia leaves people occupied with issues that are not so crucial. Candidates’ campaigns focus heavily on how they can win voters, rather than encouraging people to think rationally or to avoid hate speech or hoaxes against their fellow citizens.

These candidates’ campaigns are filled with boasting, presenting programs (often with more style than substance), and putting down other candidates. While this is a natural outcome of democracy, I believe, especially considering the current situation in Indonesia today, it is also important for the candidates to make efforts to make sure that people are politically educated.

Many people in Indonesia have little knowledge on issues surrounding the current election. Many are also lacking information about the political system of the country, its major actors, problems, and others. Instead of using them to tell hoaxes or spread hatred, campaign events or materials can be used as platforms to provide the people with true information about political issues in the country and, equally important, to tell the people not to use hoaxes and hate speeches.

When people are aware of the real conditions of the country and the way they should behave to participate in politics, it is likely that people will act more rationally and peacefully.

Media should play a role

In Indonesia, mainstream media and social media are now increasingly being used as a tool to persuade voters. With the high number of young voters and Internet users in the country, social media has become a critically important medium for any electoral campaign. As a result, many political candidates use both traditional and social media to gather support from the people. For candidates, this option is also cheaper compared to other media.

With this circumstance, Indonesia’s General Elections Commission has also released regulations for candidates on how to carry out campaigns in the media.

While there is nothing wrong with using media as a tool for political campaigns, the government and other relevant stakeholders should also utilize the development of media as a platform to increase people’s political education. This can be about the election itself, or about the danger of hoaxes and hate speeches.

A good example comes from YouTube channel Asumsi.co which started a show explaining the role of president and People’s Assembly (DPR) in the country. Although this seems very basic, this effort is indeed important given that not everyone in the country understands the subject.

This serves as an excellent example to follow by the government and other relevant stakeholders to lessen the high prevalence and intensity of hoaxes and hates speeches in public spaces.

The role of educational institutions

Educational institutions should also play a role in this regard. In the field of political science, it is widely recognized that schools are strategic institutions that can carry out citizens' political education. Schools are expected to develop learning models that can enable the realization of a democratic and civilized society.

Usually, two approaches are used: civic education and the “big issues” model.

If civic education emphasizes political literacy as a product, by transmitting factual political knowledge using didactic learning methods, the second model suppresses political literacy education as a process. The “big issues” model is carried out by introducing children to important political issues through various political discussions and debates. Of course, both have their advantages and disadvantages.

There are prominent weaknesses of these two approaches. For example, although teachers might want to use controversial issues as case studies to develop a broader understanding, expected transfers do not appear explicitly and often do not occur. Students in the end like being left to have in-depth knowledge of a particular problem chosen by themselves.

Because these problems are generally chosen by the media and not by educators, students cannot get a systematic introduction to political ideas as expected.

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Credit: Reuters / Willy Kurniawan
Joko Widodo speaks next to his running mate Ma'ruf Amin during a televised debate on Jan. 17, 2019.

The alternative approach suggested by Davies and Hogarth (2004) is the “public discourse” model. This model seeks to incorporate students into language, concepts, forms of argument, and skills needed to think and talk about life from a political perspective, emphasizing both processes and products. Factual knowledge is important, but it still must be related to other aspects that are central to students' political literacy.

Therefore, the development of school curricula should be done by identifying key concepts that form thoughts about certain areas of socio-political life. Recent research shows that the determination to get students involved in active debates on political issues is generally considered very appropriate for the development of important concepts, such as democracy and autocracy, cooperation and conflict, equality and diversity. Schools can be a laboratory to practice democratic values ​​from an early age. Indeed, schools that model democratic practices are most effective in developing knowledge and involvement in civil politics.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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