Last week, Indonesian authorities arrested a BBC correspondent for tweets she made while reporting from Papua. The journalist, Rebecca Henschke, was questioned for a total of 17 hours by immigration and military officials before being freed.
Henschke, based in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, went to Papua to report on both the measles outbreak, which has killed roughly 100 indigenous Papuan children, and on how logging and deforestation have destroyed forests where the staple food, sago palm, grows, leading Papuans to eat more instant noodles and cookies. She had a travel permit, a requirement for foreign journalists traveling to Papua.
She was arrested the day she arrived, February 1, after tweeting a photo of supplies on a river dock, writing, “aid coming in for severely malnourished children in Papua – instant noodles, super sweet soft drinks, and biscuits.” Another tweet said, “Children in hospital eating chocolate biscuits and that’s it.”
The military detained Henschke because those tweets “hurt the feelings” of the soldiers, Indonesian military spokesman Col. Muhammad Aidi said, adding that, “[The food and drink] that she took the picture of at the speedboat pier are not donations or aid. It was merchandise from merchants that was incidentally there.”
Police and immigration officials questioned Henschke in her hotel for five hours. The following day they transferred Henschke to the local mining town of Timika, where she was questioned for 12 hours at the immigration office. Immigration authorities found all her documents in order, and she and her team – journalist Heyder Affan and cameraman Dwiki Marta – were told they could continue their trip. Deciding they’d had enough, the team returned to Jakarta.
All this could have been avoided if Indonesia had implemented President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s 2015 policy that the government lift restrictions on foreign journalists reporting from Papua. The current system pressures journalists to limit reporting on Papua, and signals to the military and police that journalists can be interfered with.
President Jokowi should insist on the implementation of his decision to end restrictions on access to Papua. He should also prohibit the security forces from arresting journalists for doing their jobs. After all, the government could simply have responded to Henschke with a clarifying tweet or statement, as opposed to detaining and questioning her.