(New York) – Indonesia’s government should mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2015, by ending longstanding constraints on media freedom in Papua, Human Rights Watch said today. A decades-long official restriction on foreign media access to Papua and controls on Indonesian journalists there have fostered impunity for serious abuses by Indonesian security forces and fueled resentment among Papuans.
The Indonesian government effectively blocks foreign media from freely reporting in Papua by only allowing access to foreign journalists who get special official permission to visit the island. The government rarely approves these applications or delays processing them, hampering efforts by journalists and nongovernmental groups to report on breaking events. Official minders invariably shadow journalists who do get official permission, strictly controlling their movements and access to people they want to interview.
“International Press Freedom Day is a golden opportunity for the Indonesian government to finally end its official chokehold on foreign media access to Papua,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “The broad restrictions on reporting from Papua encourage security force abuses and profoundly undermine the public’s right to know what’s happening there.”
In line with the government’s restrictive policies, Indonesian authorities in August 2014 detained Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat, two French journalists who were producing a documentary, and threatened them with “subversion” charges for allegedly filming members of the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM). On October 6, a court in Papua’s city of Jayapura convicted them of “abusive use of entry visas,” sentenced them to time served, and released them the same day.
Although the government permits Indonesian domestic media to report from Papua, there are serious questions about the reliability and objectivity of their reporting in the face of government efforts to control the flow of information from the island. Official documents leaked in 2011 indicate that the Indonesian military employs about two dozen Papua-based Indonesian journalists as informers. The military has also financed and trained journalists and bloggers, warning them about alleged foreign interference in Papua, including by the US and other governments.
The government justifies its restrictions on media access as a necessary security precaution due to the ongoing conflict with the small and poorly organized OPM. Tensions heightened in Papua in February 2013 following a suspected OPM attack on Indonesian military forces that killed eight soldiers – the worst act of violence against the military in the area in more than 10 years. The government also consistently arrests and jails Papuan protesters for peacefully advocating independence or other political change.
President Joko Widodo pledged in June 2014 that he would remove obstacles for foreign journalists and international organizations to visit Papua. During an election campaign visit to Papua, Widodo told journalists that the government “has nothing to hide” on the island. However, he has not mentioned the issue of media freedom in Papua since then, and the policy of restricting media access continues.
“President Widodo should deliver on his promise to end the severe restrictions on media access to Papua and allow both foreign and domestic media to operate there without interference,” Kine said. “Nobody is going to believe the government has ‘nothing to hide’ in Papua until media can freely report from there.”