Indonesia Restricts Press Coverage of Restive Province

Press freedom denied in Papua

Although informal reports seeping out of Papua over recent weeks hint at rising tensions in Indonesia’s most restive province, the government is keeping a tight lid on access by both domestic and international journalists, raising suspicions of a cover-up of ‘irregularities,’ and that Jakarta fears growing openness to a pro-independence campaign.

Clearly, the government doesn’t want to repeat its experience in Timor Leste, where the arrival of international media and human rights activists after occupation by Indonesia for 24 years helped to open the way for independence in 2002. Media access is very restricted in Papua, where violence against local journalists keeps growing. Foreign journalists and their local stringers face arrest and prosecution, both those trying to document the military’s abuses and those covering humanitarian issues.

The Press Council in 2019 ranked Papua and West Papua respectively the lowest of 34 Indonesian provinces, poorest in a country that Reporters Without Borders ranked 113th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index despite President Joko Widodo's pledge to allow wider coverage. In addition to limited access for reporters, the press council assessment was also due to the government's actions in blocking the Internet after the August 2019 riots triggered by racist comments by some members of the army to Papuan students. The internet connection in Papua still hasn’t fully recovered.

Papua, a former Dutch colony, was declared part of Indonesia through a referendum in 1969. Only about 1,000 representatives handpicked by the Indonesian military and officials were allowed to vote in a referendum that declared the natural resource-rich area a part of Indonesia. Although the vote was recognized by the international community, many Papuans rejected it as fraudulent. Separatist struggles in the province have been burning since.

Violence has long been a fixture in the territory. A firefight since last week between the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) – the armed wing of the Free Papua Organization (OPM) – and Indonesian security forces in Intan Jaya District killed a toddler and forced more than 1,000 residents to seek refuge in a church. It is unclear who fired the bullet that killed the child because of the lack of information. The Indonesian government in April officially labeled the TPNPB as a terrorist organization.

Intan Jaya came under the spotlight after its citizens rejected a gold mining plan to be carried out by companies from Jakarta in Blok Wabu, about 40 km north of the Grassberg mine managed by PT Freeport Indonesia. Research conducted by a civil society coalition found potential conflicts of interest and abuse of authority from the deployment of military forces in Intan Jaya around gold mining concessions that are connected directly or indirectly with several army generals in Jakarta.

Victor Mambor, a journalist and general leader of the local media outlet Jubi, complained about the news blackout.

"It is not only about violence and human rights violations here (Papua), but also about the massive exploitation of natural resources," he said. "I think certain parties would be in trouble if foreign journalists, who have good capacity in reporting and are independent, come to see the actual situation," although without explaining further.

The conflict between armed groups and security forces on the one hand has not only become an obstacle to journalistic work in Papua, but on the other hand become a sign of the importance of an independent press, he said. Both local and international journalists are often suspected by the warring parties of being spies or members of their opposing groups. Moreover, several journalists and media are regarded as against the government.

"Over the past few years, the media where I worked had difficulty asking the police for confirmation or information because we were considered to be against the government," Mambor said. "Even though we are not at odds (with the government). We just want to dig deeper into information. We don't want to get information from only one party," he said.

Mambor pleaded for more independent journalists in the midst of a conflict situation full of uncertainty, saying professional and comprehensive coverage would help the central government in Jakarta make more informed policies about Papua and showcase the aspirations of the Papuan people.

"War and armed conflict, in addition to causing casualties on both sides, always leave parties caught in the middle,” he said. “Residents must evacuate, children lose time to study, or families lose family members either from the security forces or armed groups.”

Because of various obstacles in covering the field and the dominance of information by the government, coverage about Papua isn’t comprehensive, Mambor continued. It is often confusing and one-sided. "So what people know about Papua, could be wrong or not comprehensive information."

With so much disinformation, “the solutions taken regarding the problems in Papua are also not appropriate. This is of course detrimental to the population because the conflict continues," he said. Meanwhile, the government's policies, which in fact curb press freedom in Papua –especially against foreign journalists—will actually tarnish the image of the government itself, especially in the eyes of the international community.

The government once implemented a mechanism called a "clearing house" in which foreign journalists had to pass a series of convoluted permits from 18 work units from 12 different ministries. After that, journalists were closely monitored by intelligence agencies throughout their assignment. Many see this as an acute concern that opening international access to Papua would sow disruption in the region.

Although the government claims to have abolished the clearing house in 2015 after President Joko Widodo announced that Papua was open to the press including foreign journalists, according to the Chairman of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) Sasmito Madrim, the existing regulations still make it difficult for foreign journalists to cover there.

"Although the clearing house is said to have been disbanded, in fact various permits are still needed," Sasmito said. "The government should be transparent and clarify existing procedures,"

Some cases show that the space for foreign journalists in Papua is very limited. Rebecca Alice Henske, head of the BBC Indonesia bureau, was expelled from Papua in 2018 when covering malnutrition and measles in Asmat Regency because some of her tweets were deemed to have negatively portrayed the security forces. In May 2017, six Japanese documentary filmmakers were deported after being found covering Papua without proper visas.

Colonel Muhammad Aidi, head of Information for the XVII Cenderawasih Military Regional Command, denied accusations that journalistic access in Papua is restricted. "Indonesia, including Papua, has never been closed to anyone, as long as it follows the procedures applicable in this country," he told local media.

Sasmito said that there needs to be a dialogue between journalists, the government and security forces to share the perception of the importance of press freedom in Papua. "Early next year, we plan to hold a dialogue between them," he said. "Hopefully even if we can't be truly free, there is a common perspective that all regions must be treated equally in terms of press freedom. There should be no discrimination."

The writer prefers to remain nameless out of concern over possible retribution


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