Editorial Notes

Criticism matters in a democracy: Jakarta Post

The paper says criticism of the government should be treated as a core part of democracy.

A general view of the city skyline of Jakarta on May 19, 2021.
A general view of the city skyline of Jakarta on May 19, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - In a moment of crisis, every word that comes out of the mouths of authority figures matters more than ever.

Amid panic, hysteria and general confusion, statements from government officials should be the principal reference for members of the public. Now more than ever, government officials should choose their words carefully.

But time and again during the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen government officials make objectionable, problematic, if not downright insensitive statements.

From a health minister saying the coronavirus would wither in the tropical climate to a senior minister urging the people, who were already struggling to make ends meet, to buy vitamins for health workers, we can sense how out of touch these officials are.

Late last week, we rolled our eyes in exasperation again after a senior official shot back at criticism of the government's handling of the pandemic by saying the critics were political gadflies who were interfering with efforts to deal with the virus.

"I remind everyone not to be political gadflies who could break the concentration of all the people putting their lives on the line [fighting the coronavirus]," Presidential Chief of Staff Moeldoko said in an interview.

Reprimanding critics has apparently become part of the new strategy. Over the weekend, Moeldoko's subordinate Ali Mochtar Ngabalin made a similarly incendiary comment. On social media, Ngabalin wrote in all caps that those who were calling for government accountability in its handling of Covid-19 were "garbage of democracy".

The senior politician was responding to a Twitter hashtag calling for the resignation of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo for his handling of the recent Covid-19 surge. This could be a sign of panic or frustration. It could also be the result of a public relations vacuum on the part of the government, but technicalities aside, such a statement has no place in a healthy democracy.

Public opinion is a core part of democracy, and criticism of the government, however harsh, should be treated as such. Government officials should respond to this criticism in a professional manner and should refrain from using provocative language.

Calling government critics "flies" implies that they are to be swatted away - or perhaps even suppressed by more extreme means. After all, the hashtag is unlikely to result in street protests or the toppling of the legitimately elected democratic government.

President Jokowi continues to be supported by political parties that control more than 80 per cent of the House of Representatives, notwithstanding his subpar performance in dealing with Covid-19. Politicians and government officials should not take criticism of their handling of Covid-19 personally. They should construe it as motivation to do better - and to do so quickly.

Delays could result in more deaths, more hospitalizations and a worsening economic situation, and things could escalate rapidly from there. The nation may be afflicted by Covid-19, but its democracy must remain healthy.

  • The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.