They kept on having a friendly tone: ‘Yes, we’re looking for the right date, we’re more than happy to receive you, let’s look for a date.’ But they never said anything [regarding a solid date]. It was plausible deniability. I think what it shows is that there must be a lot to hide in Papua.
—Former UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue, describing the response of Indonesian officials to his 2012-13 request to visit Papua
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo—popularly known as Jokowi—announced on May 10, 2015, that the government would immediately lift longstanding access restrictions on accredited foreign journalists seeking to report from the provinces of Papua and West Papua (referred to as “Papua” in the rest of this report). The president’s announcement sparked optimism that Indonesia would soon end its decades-long restrictions not only on foreign reporters, but also on UN officials, representatives of international aid groups, and others seeking to work in Papua.
The access restrictions—fueled by government suspicion about the motivations of foreign nationals in a region troubled by widespread public dissatisfaction with Jakarta and a small but persistent pro-independence insurgency—have limited in-depth reporting on Papua, have done little to prevent negative portrayals of Jakarta’s role there, and continue to be a lightning rod for Indonesia’s critics.
To date, however, President Jokowi’s welcome announcement has produced almost as much confusion as clarity. This report—based on interviews with 107 journalists, editors, publishers, NGO representatives, and academics—traces the history of access restrictions in Papua and developments since the president’s announcement. It shows that access restrictions are deeply ingrained, that parts of the government are strongly resisting change, and that a genuine opening of the provinces will require more sustained and rigorous follow-through by the Jokowi administration.
For at least 25 years and likely much longer, foreign correspondents wanting to report from Papua have had to apply for access through an interagency “clearing house,” supervised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and involving 18 working units from 12 different ministries, including the National Police and the State Intelligence Agency. The clearing house has served as a strict gatekeeper, often denying applications outright or simply failing to approve them, placing journalists in a bureaucratic limbo. In some periods, the process operated as a de facto ban on foreign media in Papua. While the government appears to have eased its restrictions over the past decade, the process for foreign correspondents to acquire official permission to travel to Papua has remained opaque and unpredictable at best.
Bobby Anderson, a social development specialist and researcher who worked in Papua from 2010 to 2015, described the government’s clearing house screening of foreign media access to Papua as “illogical and counterproductive.” He told us:
The clearing house system of consensus voting means any one person has veto power, which generally means that the opinion of the most paranoid person in the meeting carries the day. These restrictions fuel all manner of speculation about Papua: the notion that the Indonesian government has “something to hide” finds purchase. But the Indonesian government finds itself in the illogical position where they hear of inflammatory reporting and this actually makes them impose restrictions, and then those restrictions prevent good journalists from writing of the complexities of the place.
President Jokowi’s May 10 announcement, while greeted by acclaim in some quarters, produced backlash in others. And it was not followed with an official presidential instruction, allowing room for non-compliance by government agencies and security forces opposed to the change. Various senior officials have since publicly contradicted the president’s statement. Even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which said it had “liquidated” the clearing house, said that prior police permission is required for access to Papua and that foreign journalists should inform the ministry of likely sources and schedules.
Other parts of the government have pushed back more strongly. On August 26, 2015 Indonesia’s Ministry of Home Affairs announced a new, even more restrictive regulation that would have required foreign journalists to get permission from local authorities as well as the State Intelligence Agency (Badan Intelijen Negara) (BIN) before reporting anywhere in the country. President Jokowi revoked the rule the following day and Minister of Home Affairs Tjahjo Kumolo subsequently apologized to the president for the “confusion” created by the now-canceled regulation. But the willingness of some senior officials to even consider such measures is an alarming indicator of the disregard for media freedom among some elements of Jokowi’s government.
The problem is not only limited to the barriers that keep foreign journalists out of Papua, but also extends to the conditions facing those who get in, including surveillance, harassment, and at times, arbitrary arrest by Indonesian security forces. This is particularly true of journalists seeking to report on Papuan social or political grievances or on the practices of the military, police, and intelligence agencies.
While there are no comparable access restrictions for Indonesian journalists in Papua, they too—particularly ethnic Papuan journalists—face serious obstacles to reporting freely on developments in Papua. Reporting on corruption and land grabs can be dangerous anywhere in Indonesia, but national and local journalists we spoke with say that those dangers are magnified in Papua and that, in addition, journalists there face harassment, intimidation, and at times even violence from officials, members of the public, and pro-independence forces when they report on sensitive political topics and human rights abuses. Journalists in Papua say they routinely self-censor to avoid reprisals for their reporting. That environment of fear and distrust is magnified by the security forces’ longstanding and documented practice of paying journalists to be informers and even deploying agents to work undercover as Indonesian journalists. These practices are carried out both to minimize negative coverage and to encourage positive reporting about the political situation.
In addition to the obstacles facing journalists, staff members of international nongovernmental organizations, academics, and some foreign observers have been denied access to Papua. The security forces closely monitor the activities of international groups that the government permits to operate in Papua—those that seek to address human rights concerns get particular scrutiny. Government documents leaked in 2011 revealed that the government and security forces routinely consider foreigners in Papua to be assisting the armed separatist Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM) through funding, moral support, and the documentation of poor living conditions and human rights abuses.
International NGOs that the government asserts are involved in “political activities” have been forced to cease operations, their representatives banned from travel to the region. Over the past six years, the Indonesian government has barred on-the-ground operations in Papua of organizations including the International Committee for the Red Cross and the Dutch development group Cordaid. Peace Brigades International (PBI), an international organization that promotes nonviolence and human rights protection in conflict areas, ceased its operations in Papua in 2011 due to what it described as unremitting government surveillance, harassment, and intimidation of its staff and volunteers. As a former Papua-based PBI representative told the story: “PBI staff were refused permission to work as the police and intelligence services launched an official investigation into the organization’s status. National Indonesian staff started to receive threatening phone calls.”
Government restrictions on foreigners have extended to United Nations officials and academics Indonesian authorities perceive as hostile. In 2013 the government rejected the proposed visit of Frank La Rue, then the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, because he insisted on including Papua on his itinerary. Foreign academics who do get permission to visit the region have been subjected to surveillance by the security forces. Those perceived to have pro-independence sympathies have been placed on visa blacklists.
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The Indonesian government has legitimate security concerns in Papua stemming from periodic attacks, mainly targeting police and security forces, by OPM fighters. However, the threat from an insurgency does not provide a legal justification for the broad-brush and indefinite restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and movement that the Indonesian government has long imposed on Papua. Any such restrictions, including those on non-nationals, must be based in law, narrowly construed in application and time to address a particular government concern, and proportionate to achieving a specific aim.
Past restrictions have far exceeded what is permissible under Indonesia’s international law obligations. The government should promptly and officially end its restrictions on travel to Papua by foreign media outlets and nongovernmental organizations, and take all necessary steps to ensure that Indonesians and foreign nationals alike who go to Papua are not subjected to threats, harassment, arbitrary arrests, and other abuses.
Removing access restrictions alone, of course, will not resolve the underlying political tensions and conflict in Papua or dispel the suspicions of Indonesian officials, but it is an essential step toward broader respect for rights: shining a light on Papua, not keeping it hidden from view, is the best way to ensure the region has a rights-respecting future.