A group of democracy activists issued a press release yesterday asking Indonesia's media outlets not to give coverage to election campaigns that denigrated or offended minority religions or beliefs.

Gerakan Kebhinekaan untuk Pemilu Berkualitas (GKPB), or the Diversity for Quality Elections Movement, stated that Indonesia's mass media has a responsibility to support fair and peaceful elections. 'With an extraordinarily strong influence on the public, the mass media has an important role to play in giving space for freedom of opinion and expression in the 2014 elections. However, this freedom must respect and protect the rights and freedoms of minority groups', the statement read.

The mass media, Press Council, and Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) were called on to monitor coverage and report responsibly on the upcoming legislative and presidential elections, in accordance with press and broadcasting laws, as well as the Journalistic Code of Ethics.

Indonesia's media is ranked as 'partly free' by democracy research organisation Freedom House, winning points for its boisterous public discussion but failing to achieve 'free' status due to interventions by government and private interests.

Election watchdog Ayo Vote reported in December that at least six TV stations had begun to broadcast covert campaign messages before the official campaign period start-date of 16 March. Six were reprimanded by the KPI and three were also reprimanded by Bawaslu, the Election Supervisory Board.

Ethnically, Indonesia is highly diverse, but in terms of religion it is relatively homogenous, with around 90% of the population identifying as Muslim. The other five state-recognised faiths are Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Other minority sects such as Ahmadiyyah have also received media attention in recent years after suffering persecution.

In a paper for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, researcher Geoffrey Macdonald explains that Indonesian voters are not easily split along religious lines (since the majority holds the same religion) or along ethnic lines (due to a shared religious and national identity). The electoral system also prevents ethnic-based politics from taking hold by forcing parties to foster broad appeal and a nationwide following.

However, religion and ethnicity can factor into elections when a candidate is not from the mainstream. One example is the campaign of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, now Joko Widodo's deputy governor of Jakarta. An ethnically Chinese Christian, Basuki faced ethnic and religious slurs from opponents who labeled him an 'infidel'.

As campaigning gets into full swing in the coming weeks, the GKPB’s warning will serve as a timely reminder of the rights and responsibilities of the mass media as the fourth pillar of Indonesia's democracy.

Photo by Flickr user nSeika.