On Sept. 23, two officers with the National Police’s Brigade Mobile (“Brimob”) fired into a stone-throwing crowd, killing a 17-year-old student and seriously wounding three other people. The police posted guards at the hospital where the wounded were being treated, and required visitors to leave their mobile phones at the entrance. Police reportedly confiscated the mobile phone of a nurse who had used it to take photos of the victims’ wounds.
That’s a story that some of the thousands of correspondents on Bali for the Oct. 5-8 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit might want to follow up on. But that won’t happen because the incident occurred in the town of Waghete, in Indonesia’s far eastern Papua province, where foreign journalists are barred from going or reporting.
The Indonesian government effectively blocks foreign media from freely reporting in Papua by limiting access to only those foreign reporters who get special official permission to visit the island. The government rarely approves applications for foreign media access to Papua or delays processing for such applications, hampering efforts by journalists and civil society groups to report on breaking events. Those journalists who do get official permission are invariably shadowed by official minders who strictly control their movements and access to interviewees.
Although the government permits Indonesian domestic media to report from Papua, there are serious questions about their reliability in the face of government efforts to control the flow of information from the troubled region. Official documents leaked in 2011 indicate that the Indonesian military employs around two dozen Papua-based Indonesian journalists as informers, raising doubts about the objectivity of their reporting. 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.
Such tactics don’t comport with Indonesia’s self-branding as a stable, progressive democracy which blends “dynamism and diversity.”
What does the government have to hide? A litany of violence and abuses.
The incident in Waghete — which the Indonesian government has yet to investigate if police used unnecessary lethal force — is just one of many troubling incidents of violence and impunity which have characterized life in Papua since Indonesian military forces deployed there in 1963 to counter a long-simmering independence movement.
The Free Papua Movement (OPM) is small and poorly organized, though it has increased in sophistication in recent years. Tensions heightened in Papua in 2013 following the Feb. 21 attack on Indonesian military forces by suspected elements of the separatist Free Papua Movement. The attack killed eight soldiers, the worst act of violence against the military in the area in more than ten years.
Human rights abuses remain rife in Papua. Over the last three years alone, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases where police, military, intelligence officers, and prison guards have exercised excessive force when dealing with Papuans exercising their right to peaceful assembly.
On April 30, police fired on a group of Papuans who peacefully gathered in Aimas district, near Sorong, to protest the 50th anniversary of the 1963 handover of Papua from Dutch colonial control. Two men, Abner Malagawak and Thomas Blesia, were killed on the spot. A third victim, Salomina Kalaibin, died six days later from gunshot wounds. Police detained at least 22 individuals and charged seven of them with treason.
An Indonesian army battalion went on a rampage in Wamena on June 6, 2012, burning down 87 houses, injuring 13 native Papuans and killing one. Their attacks came after villagers had beaten two soldiers whose motorcycle had run over a Papuan child. One soldier died in the attack. Police arrested three Papuan suspects. On June 12, the military “solved” the incident with a traditional stone-burning ceremony in which the Papuan populace was asked to close the case. Not a single soldier was tried.
In August 2011, the Jayapura military tribunal convicted three soldiers from the same battalion after soldiers shot and killed the Rev. Kinderman Gire on the suspicion he was a Papuan separatist.
At the trial, the defendants claimed the Rev. Gire led them to believe he was a member of the rebel Free Papua Movement and tried to grab a rifle from one of them, who then shot him in the chest. They dumped the body in a river, after cutting cut off his head. Again, the tribunal convicted them of a lesser offense of “disobeying orders” and sentenced them respectively to just six, seven, and fifteen months in prison.
Impunity has become synonymous with the operations of security forces in Papua. While a handful of military tribunals have been held in Papua, the charges have been inadequate and soldiers who committed abuses continue to serve in the military.
In January 2011, a military tribunal in Jayapura, Papua, convicted three soldiers from the Nabire-based Battalion 753 and sentenced them to between eight to twelve months in prison for the brutal torture of two Papuan farmers, burning one farmer’s penis. Despite video showing the involvement of six soldiers, the tribunal tried only three of the six soldiers, and on lesser military discipline charges instead of torture. The soldiers have not been discharged from military service.
The government also consistently arrests and jails Papuan protesters for peacefully advocating for independence or other political change. Currently 55 Papuan activists are jailed for “treason.” They include Filep Karma, a Papuan civil servant, who serves 15 years in prison for raising the Morning Star flag — a West Papua independence symbol — in December 2004. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said that Karma was not given a fair trial in Indonesia and asked the Indonesian government to immediately and unconditionally release Karma. Indonesia has refused the UN recommendation.
These incidents — and the inability of foreign media to cover them — have drawn international criticism, but not generated enough pressure to end the reporting ban.
During the Universal Periodic Review of Indonesia at the UN Human Rights Council on May 23, 2012, France called on Indonesia to ensure free access for civil society and journalists to Papua. The United Kingdom noted the “increase in violence” in Papua and “encouraged Indonesia to tackle violence against minority faiths and accept visit requests by Special Rapporteurs.” Austria, Chile, the Maldives, and South Korea called on Indonesia to accept standing invitations to the UN rights experts and groups known as special procedures. Mexico specifically asked the Indonesian government to invite the special rapporteurs to Papua. Germany asked Indonesia to release Papuan political prisoners including Filep Karma.
But the Indonesian government is adamant in its refusal to loosen its chokehold on journalists’ access to Papua. On July 16, 2013, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa defended the foreign media ban by warning of unnamed “elements in Papua who are keen to gain international attention by doing harm to international personalities including journalists.”
Marty’s determination to keep Papua behind a censored curtain only fosters security forces’ impunity and fuels resentment among Papuans. It’s time for the Indonesian government to free the media and civil society to shine a light on conditions in Papua, good and bad.
Andreas Harsono is Human Rights Watch's Indonesia researcher. Follow him on Twitter: @andreasharsono.