Cartoonist's depiction of Indonesian government restrictions on media freedom and rights monitoring in Papua.

© 2015 Toni Malakian for Human Rights Watch

An Indonesian foreign ministry official has confirmed the government has maintained a secretive interagency “clearing house” that has long obstructed foreign journalists from traveling to the provinces of Papua and West Papua, despite promises to shut it down. That revelation comes just days after Indonesia hosted UNESCO-sponsored events marking World Press Freedom Day in Jakarta, on May 3.

Ade Safira, the director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Civil and Political Rights Protection division, said that the clearing house continued to vet requests of foreign journalists and researchers who want to travel to the two provinces, referred to as “Papua.” Safira said the body makes its decisions in consultation with the Papuan provincial government.

Safira’s comments contradict assurances of Siti Sofia Sudarma, director of information and media in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who told Human Rights Watch in August 2015 that the government had “liquidated” the clearing house, while still requiring a police permit for foreign media to visit Papua. Sudarma had said the move was in line with a May 2015 oral directive from President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to lift official restrictions on foreign media access to Papua. Jokowi has failed to signal the policy change in writing via presidential instruction, creating a policy ambiguity that has enabled government and security force officials to continue to restrict foreign media from Papua.

The Indonesian government claims that since May 2015, it has allowed 39 foreign reporters to visit Papua. Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), a nongovernmental union, challenges that statistic and says only 15 foreign journalists have been granted official permission to travel to the region in that period. Human Rights Watch has documented that the Indonesian government continues to restrict foreign media access to Papua and to deport those lawfully in the country who travel to Papua without official permission. They include the French journalists Jean Frank Pierre and Basille Marie Longchamp who Indonesian police deported in March for lacking “necessary documents from related institutions” while filming a documentary sponsored by Garuda Airlines. Some foreign journalists who have traveled to Papua with official permission since May 2015 have subsequently complained of visa blacklisting for reporting that displeased the Indonesian government and the harassment and intimidation of Papuan sources.

Until Jokowi issues an unambiguous written directive lifting foreign media access restrictions to Papua, such abuses will likely continue.