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Pressed into silence: West Papua, Indonesia & World Press Freedom Day

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Left: Street art in London by Dale Grimshaw (photo by Monoprixx, wall supplied by The Real Art of Street Art. Right: World Press Freedom Day 2017 Poster (UNESCO).

As Indonesia prepares to host World Press Freedom Day, accusations of hypocrisy are growing louder. The Indonesian government is notorious for restricting journalism within the occupied territory of West Papua – something that West Papuan journalist Victor Mambor and Cyril Payen of France24 have both experienced.

Victor Mambor: Indonesia’s double standards

Every year, on May 3rd, we celebrate the basic principles of press freedom. World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) exists to give an annual evaluation of global press freedom; to stand up for the independence of the press from violence; and to pay tribute to those who have lost their life carrying their journalistic duties.

This year, Indonesia is the host of WPFD. Many activities are planned for the celebration from May 1st to 4th, 2017, which will include 1200 participants from 100 countries. It seems that Indonesia, a country which ranks 124 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2017 Press Freedom Index, wants to convince the international community that media freedom is in fact its priority.

Unfortunately, the Indonesian government’s record does not match its rhetoric, particularly in the eastern Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua (often known collectively as West Papua). These two provinces have faced serious issues: restrictions are placed on foreign journalists, while violence and discrimination against Papuan journalists and bribery are common occurrences.

Access denied

In May 2015, President Joko Widodo declared that access restrictions for foreign journalists in West Papua would be lifted, and Indonesia claimed they then gave permission to 39 foreign journalists to report in the region. However, figures from the Alliance of Independent Journalists in Papua show that only 15 foreign journalists have in fact been permitted to enter West Papua since 2015, and many have faced difficulties in reporting independently.

The visa application for Radio New Zealand International reporter, Johnny Blades took three months to be approved, and only after he was able to convince the Indonesian Embassy that he would only cover development issues. Even then, the permit he received did not allow him to film everything he wanted: any footage of of security forces was strictly off limits.

Radio France reporter, Marie Dhumieres, was spied on by police while reporting from West Papua in 2015. ‘The police arrested two Papuan civilians for helping me gain access to a plane. They were interrogated by the police,’ said Dhumieres.

Discrimination and violence

In February 2017, research by WAN-IFRA (The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers) concluded that government officials and security forces are discriminating against Indigenous Papuan journalists, who are stigmatized as supporters of the Free West Papua Movement. One reporter from Papua Selatan Pos admitted that he experienced intimidation from the police and government, including the banning of two of his publications in 2007 and 2008. He was threatened with criminal charges and prohibited from reporting on President Joko Widodo’s investment programme in the Merauke region.

When Papuan civilians are shot or arrested, Indigenous Papuan journalists find it very difficult to get any information from the security forces. ‘When a shooting incident took place towards a civilian in Boven Digoel, I asked for confirmation from the police chief via text message. Instead of confirming the incident, he said “I thought you were banned from reporting”,’ revealed Arnold Belau, a reporter from Suara Papua.

Indigenous Papuan journalists including the late Octovianus Pogau, Abeth You (Koran Jubi), and Ardi Bayage (Suara Papua) have experienced violence from police officers during their coverage of peaceful public rallies in West Papua.

Abeth describes one such incident from 2015: ‘After I took pictures of activists, police officers from Jayapura Municipality Police later came out from a police truck to disperse the protesters. There was a police officer that acted brutally against the demonstrators. He came towards me, seized my camera and deleted my photos. He insisted that I was a demonstrator, although I showed him my press card.’

Ardi Bayage was even put in the Abepura police cells for covering a West Papua National Committee (KNBP) demonstration in support the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). He was arrested and put in jail with seven other demonstrators. Later, the police said they did not know that Bayage was a journalist.

From 2012 to 2016, the Alliance of Independent Journalists of Jayapura Municipality recorded 63 cases of violence against journalists in West Papua. None of these cases led to any legal consequences for the police.

Cash for good news

‘At first, I was amazed to see so many journalists waiting around at the end of interview sessions with officials. I then found out that they were actually waiting for their money.’ said one journalist who works for a media base in Jakarta. Another journalist confessed that regional officials are willing to give large sums of money to make up news about the success of development projects in West Papua, even if the real facts are very different.

Bribery has become a serious issue for journalists in West Papua. According to RSF’s 2017 Press Freedom Index, the practice is partly driven by the low salary of journalists in West Papua. Journalists receive bribes from officials as a reward for writing positive stories about the region. As a consequence, journalists rarely report problematic issues such as environmental degradation from development projects or violence against civilians from the security forces.

Tightening the web

The government of Indonesia is now treating communications technology as a threat. Websites that have raised the issues of human rights violations in West Papua are now starting to be banned in Indonesia. After suarapapua.com was banned in 2016, the government has also blocked a range of websites including ampnews.org, infopapua.org, papuapost.com, freepapua.com, freewestpapua.org, bennywenda.org and ulmwp.org.

‘The government claims that access has been restricted because those websites had “separatist” content. But we need to ensure that any such restrictions meet accepted human rights standards,’ said Asep Komarudin, Research Coordinator of the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute for the Press (LBH Pers Jakarta). He believes that websites should not be restricted unless the process is clear, transparent and recognized by law. Any determination of content should be carried out by a judicial authority or an independent body, not the government.

All of these issues should be of great concern to anyone involved in celebrating World Press Freedom Day in Jakarta. Double standards in press freedom are not something to be proud of!

Victor Mambor is Editor of the West Papuan newspaper Tabloid Jubi. He was former chairperson for The Alliance of Independent Journalist in Papua (2010-2016). Now he is a press expert of the Indonesia Press Council.

Cyril Payen: ‘Too good to be true’

I have lived and worked for more than 20 years in Asia. My reporting took me from Burma to North Korea, from the jungles of the Southern Philippines to Tibet - but there was still one place, a remote, wild and inaccessible region bordering Asia and the Pacific, an area I had always dreamt to visit: West Papua.

This remote region annexed by Indonesia had always been a journalist’s fantasy, an impossible challenge. There were a few amazing stories over the years of colleagues spending months in the Papuan swamps among machete-wielding guerrillas, or of foreigners vanishing at the border with Papua New Guinea. Stories of daring reporters too, being arrested and deported from Jayapura and banned from Indonesia after trying to get into the region undercover.

More than five decades ago Indonesia brutally annexed this region with no noticeable reaction from the outside world. The area had been always off limits to humanitarian organizations as well as foreign journalists. Forty-five thousand troops were said to be currently stationed here: more than anywhere else in the country. Years of repression had resulted in hundreds of thousands of victims among the local West Papuan population. Why did Jakarta have such an interest in this land? Why were they keeping it sealed up?

Then, in 2014, a new reform-oriented president was elected in Indonesia. Joko Widodo’s ideas, programme and intentions sounded very promising.

After just a few months in office, the new president declared that off-limits provinces like Papua and West Papua were now accessible to anyone without needing a permit. It sounded too good to be true, so I immediately contacted officials from the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs in Jakarta. Surprisingly, it took less than two weeks to obtain a press visa for West Papua. On a misty morning of June 2015, I was finally landing at Jayapura airport after a long flight over the immense Indonesian archipelago.

Working in a place which has been closed for decades is not easy. Fully aware of the huge military intelligence network in place in Indonesia that I had experienced in East Timor, Aceh and Ambon over the years, I was instinctively watching my back upon arrival in West Papua, checking the streets for distinctive men with black leather biker jackets – a trademark look for Indonesian undercover police. More importantly, I did not rush to get in touch with local dissidents and human rights activists so as not to compromise them. It really goes with the job to be cautious, and not take for granted any sudden change of rules. Frankly, I was expecting to be followed and spied upon. After a few days, it was clear I was not.

Staying for a while in Jayapura, I could work quite freely, even sneaking into the provincial jail to meet political leaders and ‘Papua Merdeka’ (Free West Papua) members. Jayapura was obviously becoming a carbon copy of other major industrialized Indonesian cities. Sadly, all traces of Papuan culture had nearly vanished already. Through a massive and uncontrolled transmigration plan, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians had been relocated here. Dramatic demographic changes had occurred already: the Papuans had become a minority.

So I decided to leave the city. And then the problems started.

I left for the Baliem Valley, at the heart of the island. I headed through one of the wildest and most remote regions on earth to reach Tolikara, a village perched almost 2000 meters above sea level. It was less than a century ago that outsiders stumbled across this remote area. Today a growing number of Indonesians are migrating to Tolikara, creating an uneasy peace with local tribes. Here, I started to be followed, and my contacts began to be watched. My Papuan driver mysteriously changed overnight, being replaced by an Indonesian man from Java who happened to be a military intelligence operative. The day after my visit, violent incidents started in Tolikara. The police shot several local villagers demonstrating against the Indonesian presence. After a few days into the Baliem Valley, I radically changed my way of working, starting to be very cautious and to move quickly. Back to Jayapura, two intelligence officers were waiting for me, quietly sitting in the lobby of my hotel. It suddenly looked like the old days. My filming was done. The next morning, I was gone.

A few months later, my documentary ‘La Guerre Oubliée des Papous’ (‘Papua’s Forgotten War’) was broadcast worldwide on France 24. The Indonesian embassy in Paris immediately reacted by summoning the French Ambassador in Jakarta to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During the tense meeting, the diplomat was told I had ‘betrayed’ their trust and that my film was ‘biased’. As a result, I would be denied any Indonesian visa from that day forwards. The president’s promises had not lasted long. It was, indeed, too good to be true.

Cyril Payen is the Middle East correspondent for France 24. Some of his coverage from West Papua can be seen on France 24.

The May edition of New Internationalist magazine, Freedom in sight? Why the world's forgotten occupation needs you, is dedicated to West Papua.

See also: Western democracies set low standards as global media freedom declines