By Harishmawan Heryadi
There is a widespread impression that people in Indonesia are afraid to talk about politics, let alone criticize the country’s high officials. Today there seems to be growing evidence that this impression is accurate. This is borne not only by personal observations but also by various surveys.
In the SMRC survey, it was revealed that 39 percent of the respondents were afraid to talk about politics. Meanwhile, in the LP3ES survey, it is indicated that 52.1 percent of the people agree that the threat to civil liberties is increasing, accompanied by their fear of expressing their opinion.
This is quite surprising for a country that takes pride in its post-reformasi democracy achievements. The exercise of the freedom to speak and express one’s views is an important element of democracy.
This situation is in contrast to that in other democracies such as the United States. In that country freedom of expression is widely exercised, although at one time the country was led by Donald Trump, a figure who is considered by many observers and the media to carry out tactics associated with authoritarian leaders.
In particular, look at how late night shows hosted by personalities like Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and Trevor Noah talk about politics, especially in the era of Donald Trump. They always had a field day making jokes about Trump and his various policies.
This is of course the opposite of what is happening in Indonesia. Let alone being the butt of jokes, political topics seem increasingly taboo even on social media.
Of course, it would be nice if Indonesia had a regular platform that can discuss political matters in a freewheeling manner. Then, could Indonesia have a program like Kimmel’s or Colbert’s?
Brave Midnight Event
The “late night show” is a very popular format in that country. Over the years this kind of show has entertained an audience of tens of millions. It is not only popular, it is also a source of prestige for the person who hosts it.
Outwardly, this format is usually characterized by plain entertainment and comedy. It includes host monologues, guest interviews, musical performances, and comedy sketches. But typically the host monologue is an irreverent commentary on the latest news.
Here, various criticisms are aired through jokes and satire. The host not only reads and comments on the news but also inserts a variety of humor that tickles the funny bone and at the same time sting with criticism.
In Indonesia this format has been tried. The latest attempt to imitate a late show is Eleven Twelve. Unfortunately, the show, which was hosted by comedian Pandji Pragiwaksono, did not last long enough to compare with similar shows in the US.
Historically, according to David Niven, S. Robert Lichter, and Daniel Amundson, the content of shows like this is indeed dominated by humor about the president of the country and other politicians.
In the US, from the 2020 presidential election until the second impeachment of Donald Trump, this kind of show elicited a lot of discussion. Kimmel, Colbert, Noah, or Meyers had the audacity to rev up the jokes on Trump’s idiosyncrasies.
Not only Trump, several other high officials such as Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz were also subjected to ridicule.
Colbert in The Late Show took a unique approach to describing Trump during the election period to the impeachment process. During the show he never mentioned Trump’s name directly. He used such terms as “our current president.”
Afraid to Speak Up
For Indonesians, given the situation they are in, observing events in the US can be quite confusing. How could a president like Trump be so often the butt of criticism and ridicule in those shows?
In particular, Indonesian netizens like the meatball guy meme, may find it incomprehensible that Kimmel and his colleagues have not been picked up by the police yet.
On deeper thought, there may be a reason why late shows with a vulgar format in the US are not necessarily suitable for the Indonesian market. If you look at the practice in the US, the show host can make criticism of the president in very unconventional manner to the extent of vulgarity.
As stated above, surveys from SMRC and LP3ES have shown that people are increasingly afraid to talk about politics. Therefore, a politics of fear may have emerged, which Arash Javanbakht calls tribal or group reaction.
This means that if someone has been exposed to danger because he freely gave voice to his views, other people will be careful not to make the same mistake. This is what prevents Indonesians from being as vulgar as Kimmel and his ilk.
Many people see for example critics who are in trouble with the law or at least being attacked by buzzers. Well, they don’t want to suffer the same fate by criticizing, let alone making jokes, anywhere, especially on broadly networked platforms such as television shows.
Such timidity may be rooted in the history and legacy of the New Order. For 32 years, the Indonesian people were not allowed to freely express their opinions, let alone make politically charged jokes, or else they would suffer dire consequences. This condition, according to Max Lane, is reflected in the current situation.
In particular, Lane also highlighted how the provisions of the ITE Law have struck fear in the hearts of the Indonesian people. Over the past few years, this law has become a terror for critics and comedians alike.
Of course, it was combined with other provisions of law such as those on defamation. These provisions are prone to be used by offended parties to send critics and offending humorists to jail. Thus people with power and the supporters who blindly worship them have weaponized these legal provisions.
On top of that, there are media owners who have political interests. Some of them even have representatives in government. Of course, rather than allow their interests to be endangered, they will play it safe by not broadcasting a program that criticizes the government.
Get used to the discussion
Considering the situation in the country, the possibility of being entertained by the Indonesian equivalent of the late shows in the US is still a distant dream. Speaking freely with a wide reach such as on television, public debates and demonstrations are still classified as vulnerable to repression by government officials and their fanatical supporters.
This situation is quite unfortunate. Public officials who are easily offended are widely feared. However, it is possible that this fear can be overcome if people are encouraged to talk about politics stimulated to get used to talking about politics casually.
It would help if there were people who dare to talk about politics in public spaces and over networks with wide coverage such as in late-hour television shows.
In this regard, Kristen D. Landreville, R. Lance Holbert, and Heather L. LaMarre have relevant findings that they share in The Influence of Late-Night TV Comedy Viewing on Political Talk: A Moderated-Mediation Model.
They found that late-night shows had a positive impact on democratic communication activities. These included political discussions and face-to-face debates. In particular, these kinds of media activities also have a strong impact on younger voters.
It may not be realized immediately but it is natural that later there will be those who crave a late show in Indonesia. Such events can familiarize the public with political discussions. This is certainly useful for eradicating the fear of expression, which is a bad sign in a democracy.
For now, however, Indonesians will have to wait for their own versions of Kimmel, Colbert, Noah, and Meyers. What people can immediately do is to start discussing politics privately and in small groups. Over time there should be a build-up of the courage to speak.
Of course, people will remind you that if a meatball seller stalks you, bring a walkie-talkie.
Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of PinterPolitik.