Indonesia is hosting World Press Freedom Day in Jakarta this week but has been criticised for failing to address media restrictions in Papua, where a reporter was beaten by the police this week.
The media event, themed “Critical minds for critical times: media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies”, is being held from May 1 to 4, with a focus on strengthening media freedom and quality.
Organised by the UN’s cultural agency, Unesco, with the Indonesian government and the Press Council, the event does not include any discussion of media freedom in the subjugated eastern provinces of Papua and West Papua. Indonesian and foreign journalists have long complained about the difficulties of getting access to report on the separatist movements in the ethnically distinct provinces.
As ever, Jakarta treads an uneasy balance between its aspirations to join the international community and the necessity to hold its sprawling, impoverished archipelago together. Jakarta cannot afford another East Timor.
Indonesia’s decision to hold a conference proclaiming press freedom, while simultaneously crushing the Papuan media, neatly encapsulates the contradictions.
Press Council chairman Yosep Adi Prasetyo said the lack of media freedom in Papua was never on the agenda. “[Papua] is a domestic affair while this event is an international forum where we focus more on discussing issues that are relevant both locally and internationally,” he said. This fails to recognise that the Papua issue is of both domestic and international significance.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other NGOs have documented harassment and violence faced by activists and journalists in Papua.
President Joko Widodo’s announced in May 2015 that Papua would be open to the foreign media but international access to Papua was often denied on spurious “security” grounds, HRW reported.
Yosep said: “We cannot solve the matter, only Jokowi’s administration can. Other countries can’t meddle in this affair, because of non-interference principles.”
The council had visited Papua, the chairman said, to discuss the concerns with the police and military, urging them to relax restrictions on access.
The provinces make up around a quarter of Indonesia’s landmass but West Papua has a population below 900,000 and Papua Province around 3.5 million out of the archipelago’s total population of 263 million.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian police reportedly arrested at least 50 Papuans this week in the provincial capital Jayapura for joining a public discussion and prayer event.
Suara Papua reported that 26 of the Papuans taken into custody had been tortured.
The rally was apparently organised by the West Papua National Committee to commemorate May 1, 1963, when the UN gave temporary administration of West Papua to Indonesia.
A Papuan journalist who was covering the peaceful demonstration in Sentani, a suburb of Jayapura, was allegedly beaten by the police.
Yance Wenda of the news website Jubi has published photos of his injuries after he was taken into custody where he said the police beat him with a rattan cane.
Wenda told the BenarNews he had a letter of authorisation from his employer to cover the protest.
Jayapura police chief Gustav Urbinas acknowledged Wenda had been arrested, but denied his officers beat him.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned what it called Indonesia’s “double-dealing”.
Benjamin Ismaïl, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said: “We firmly condemn the police violence against Yance Wenda and we call for an investigation so that both the perpetrators and their superiors, who endorse their brutality, can be brought to justice. Indonesia is in the bottom third of the 2017 World Press Index and this beating, the latest in a long series of attacks on media freedom in West Papua in recent months, constitutes yet further evidence that it did not deserve to host the World Press Freedom Day celebration.
“Unesco and all the political figures gathered in Jakarta must condemn the violence and ask President Joko Widodo to stop playing a double game that consists of promoting media freedom with the international community while continuing to crack down in West Papua.”
Indonesia was ranked 124th out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index last month, while journalists were regularly threatened by the authorities and forced to censor their work, RSF said.
Last week, the Papuan police seized the camera of television reporter Richardo Hutahaen and deleted its content. Hutahaen, who represents an organisation of Papuan journalists, and two colleagues reportedly received death threats after covering a court hearing on a dispute between politicians in the province.
Back in in Jakarta, more than 1,500 journalists, including 500 representatives from 90 countries, are attending the event.
Communications and Information Minister Rudiantara said the Indonesian press had experienced more freedom since the beginning of the reform era. Since the 1999 Press Law, the government had never intervened, he told the event.
“All stakeholders want democracy and freedom of expression to be maintained to guard Indonesia’s unity while journalists should obey ethics codes,” he said.
His promises ring hollow.
The Indonesian police block a demonstration in Jayapura, Papua, last year. Picture credit: YouTube