Again internet breakdown as armed conflict escalates – Coincidence or deliberate government measure?

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Since 30 April 2021, the internet in Papua’s largest city, Jayapura, has been dysfunctional. The breakdown occurred only five days after members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN PB) killed a Papuan intelligence chief in the Puncak Regency on 25 April 2021. Thereupon, Indonesian security forces launched an operation against the TPN PB on 27 April to find and arrest the perpetrators. Media observers and human rights activists suspect that the Government has deliberately shut down the internet to impede the flow of information on the conflict situation in the central highlands. Similar operations over the past two years have been frequently accompanied by human rights violations and internal displacement of the indigenous population.

The Vice-President of Corporate Communications of the Indonesian telecommunications company PT Telkom, Pujo Pramono, has claimed that a damaged submarine fibre cable caused the internet disruption along West Papua’s northern coast. The latest internet breakdown is only one in a series of similar occasions in the past two years. For the time being, Telkom uses a backup link through IP Radio, alternative fibre cable connections or satellite communication systems for telecommunications services in Jayapura. According to Pramono, the total bandwidth capacity in Jayapura had reached 2.7 Mbps as of 10 May 2021 but is still far below the internet speed under normal conditions, reaching up to 60 Mbps in the Papua Province. He estimated that the connection would be fully recovered in the first week of June 2021. 

Media observers and human rights organisations suspect that the Government has deliberately shut down the internet to prevent media and human rights activists from monitoring the recent escalation of armed conflict in the Puncak Regency and exposing human rights violations. The South-East Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet) observed that the internet disruptions in West Papua co-relate with security-related incidents over the past two years. According to SAFEnet, the latest internet breakdown was also preceded by a series of digital attacks against activists and journalists in Jayapura - an additional indication for a systematic and structural intervention by a third party.

It would not be the first time that Indonesian authorities shut down the internet in West Papua. Multiple racist assaults against Papuan students in various cities across Java in early August 2019 triggered a series of protests against the racial discrimination of ethnic Papuans and for self-determination in 23 towns across West Papua and 17 cities in Indonesia between 19 August and 30 September 2019. In response to the unrest, the government throttled the internet in West Papua between 21 August and 4 September 2019. In early December 2019, multiple Indonesian NGOs filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of the State Secretary and the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology to the Jakarta State Administrative Court. The NGOs claimed that the internet shutdown was ordered without a legal foundation. The Indonesian government had justified the blockage, arguing it wants to prevent the spreading of false news, leading to further riots.

On 3 June 2020, the Jakarta State Administrative Court ruled that the internet ban imposed by President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and the Minister for Communication and Informatics was against the principle of governance. The verdict did not make any clear statement about whether President Jokowi and his minister have to make a public apology as the plaintiffs had initially demanded. The judges elaborated that the blockage of internet services violates multiple statutory provisions, including Article 40 paragraph (2a) and (2b) of the Information and Electronic Transactions Law (ITE Law). The Government can block internet content that violates the law but is not allowed to stop all internet services. The internet is a neutral media that may be used for positive and harmful activities. The judges also represented the view that the Government’s restrictions on internet access in West Papua disrupted activities and caused adverse effects on citizens' economy.

Following the series of protests in West Papua, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a public statement in which she expressed concern about the outbreak of violence and the internet shutdown in West Papua. “I encourage the authorities to […] restore internet services and refrain from any excessive use of force. Blanket internet shutdowns are likely to contravene freedom of expression and limiting communications may exacerbate tensions”, said Bachelet.

The internet disruption, in particular, poses a challenge to human rights defenders in West Papua. They play an essential role in documenting such incidents in conflict areas, restricted to journalists and foreign media. Local networks connecting human rights organisations with local informants in conflict areas are no longer functional. Secure messaging services like Signal or Telegram can no longer be used to share information on human rights violations to a broader network. This situation also leaves human rights defenders vulnerable to violence and intimidation by security force members as the violations can no longer be exposed to human rights mechanisms, international networks and the public.

The internet breakdown has also affected public life in Jayapura. According to media outlet Jubi, some universities have temporarily stopped teaching. Jayapura-based media outlets reportedly have difficulties in receiving and distributing information through the internet. The situation had severe consequences for hotels and travel businesses in the Jayapura area as both depend on online bookings. Currently, aeroplane tickets can no longer be booked with travel agencies in Jayapura, so people have to call agencies outside the Jayapura area to order tickets. As of 5 May 2021, people in Jayapura rely on phone calls and text messages (SMS) for communication. All online services in Jayapura continue to be dysfunctional apart from several isolated locations in Waena, Entrop and the city centre where people have access to a 4G connection. TELKOM plans to re-establish a 4G connection for government offices and other relevant institutions as a matter of priority.