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Petulance in politics

The little tempest stirred up by Indonesia’s Health Minister over a less than flattering opinion I wrote of her made me think of digging this one out of some old files. It was picked up by dozens of websites, although this is the only one that actually claims to own copyright. That came as a surprise to me, since I never sold my inherent copyright to them or to anyone else.

This page can be found on the web at;=en&start;=10&sa;=N

Press freedom and democracy
Patrick Guntensperger comments on the contemporary status of Indonesia’s government and media

The Jakarta Post
Friday, August 6, 2004
By Patrick Guntensperger
A politician’s commitment to freedom of the press is one of the best possible indicators of his commitment to the general principles of democracy. A politician who is willing to see an unfettered press judge him and report on him, fairly or unfairly, is one who places democracy ahead of personal considerations.
More than anything, Indonesia, right now, needs politicians who are ready to place the democratization of this country ahead of their personal ambition, wealth, power or even ego gratification.

A free press is one that is free to publish unpopular opinions. And that must include opinions that are unpopular with the established political powers. As long as a published opinion stops short of libel (and in a democracy, that’s a civil matter to be taken up by the injured party, not a criminal matter to be prosecuted by the government), a politician who supports democracy must be willing to accept even tasteless, misleading and heavily slanted criticism.

A politician, on the other hand, who claims to support the process of democratization but allows his government to use the criminal courts to punish those who malign him in the press, is a hypocrite and fundamentally anti-democratic.

True freedom of the press must extend even to shoddy, second and third rate journalism. It would be a mistake to think that granting the people the right to a free press would guarantee high professional standards among journalists; in truth, the effect could well be precisely the opposite. A truly free press would have room for vicious verbal assaults on public figures, rabidly partisan tub-thumping, unreasonable demands and expectations, faulty logic and sheer stupidity in print.

In a democracy though, we assume that the people have a right to consider even the opinions of halfwits. The key is that the people have a right to hear and then to consider opinions before accepting or rejecting them. Just as a democratic government has no business imposing particular opinions (no matter how virtuous) on the people, it has no right to withhold views (no matter how ridiculous) from consideration.

In a true democracy, opinions of every sort have an opportunity for expression. The truly stupid will find a few adherents. The outrageous might spark some debate; the thoughtful and intelligent will claim supporters. High quality, professional journalism will attract and maintain the largest audience for their news and opinions.

In any case, the people will have a chance to consider all opinions, their sources and their proponents. Without such freedom, all published opinion becomes suspect. Without such freedom, no printed or broadcast opinion or news item can be accepted at face value and all are therefore mistrusted. The government itself becomes an object of fear and suspicion because it controls the printed and spoken word.

A truly free press would spawn a higher level of journalism, even at the same time as it would tolerate the lowest kind of gutter press. A news source that practices the highest standards of ethics and strives towards objectivity and accuracy in its reporting and even-handedness in its editorial policy will attract readers. Having a number of such sources, particularly if they occupy different places on the political spectrum, will ensure that the population has access to a variety of views and that their opinions therefore, can be informed ones. People will always read the trash that is published as well. Gutter press will always have its adherents; the gutter press is useful even if only because it contrasts so starkly with the legitimate press.

If an important public figure in Indonesian politics were ever to publish an intelligent and thoughtful rebuttal of an accusation or of a derogatory story, rather than imposing the Criminal Code on the writer or publisher, the country should sit up and take notice. This would be an indication that the politician genuinely has true democratic leanings. That would cause us all to suspect that the noble sounding speeches about democracy were more than mere political posturing.

A politician who is truly committed to the democratization of Indonesia would tolerate opposing views, no matter how much they rankle; a true democrat would even be able to shrug off a vindictive personal condemnation as being a misguided but permissible expression of opinion. Nobody enjoys being insulted or even taken to task for perceived failures, but that’s part of the baggage that comes with public life. A representative of the people must hear from those whom he represents…even the idiots out there.

If a politician feels that his position in government entitles him to insulation under the law from negative opinions, it is an indication that he still subscribes to the old anti-democratic paradigms. That politician hasn’t progressed to the point where he accepts and embraces his role as a public servant; he is still mired in the traditional belief that he is a ruler. A ruler is exempt from criticism; a leader rejects it and moves on. Or accepts it and learns from it.

Date Posted: 8/6/2004
© 2009. The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.

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