The need for press freedom in West Papua has never been more urgent: surging numbers at demonstrations over the past year have been met with thousands of unlawful arrests of peaceful protesters. During this crisis, Jakarta has acted to censor West Papua media outlets, intimidate local journalists, and bar foreign reporters from the region.

The irony of Indonesia hosting World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) 2017 has been noted by the Guardian and other media. As if on cue, just as the press freedom event began in Jakarta on 1 May a West Papuan journalist, Yance Wenda, was arrested and beaten by police while covering unlawful mass arrests at a discussion and prayer event in Jayapura.

There have been at least 65 cases of violence against local West Papuan journalists in the last five years, yet no perpetrators have ever been brought to justice. Indigenous West Papuan journalists face discrimination from officials when reporting, and are stigmatised as being part of the pro-independence movement. A couple of recent examples: on 8 October 2015, Abeth You of Tabloid Jubi was covering a demonstration in Jayapura when police bundled him into a truck then forced him to delete his footage at gunpoint. Abdel Gamel Naser of the Cenderawasih Post and Julian Howay of Suara Papua were also prevented from taking pictures of the same demonstration. On 1 May 2016, Ardi Bayage of Suara Papua was arrested while covering mass arrests in Jayapura. Police took his mobile phone and press ID, threw them to the ground and stamped on them until they were destroyed. He was forced to take off his shirt, ordered to join 2,108 other arrestees in the police headquarters field and interrogated, during which time he was struck several times in the face.

People holding a protest outside the WPFD venue.

Bribery and intimidation of journalists and their editors is also employed to ensure reports of human rights abuses are spiked before publication. The Sorong chief of police has freely admitted that he summoned local journalists to his office to demand they not report the arrests of 106 activists in the city by his officers on 19 November 2016.

West Papua has been off limits for foreign journalists since Indonesia took over control following a widely-criticised sham referendum in 1969. In recognition of international criticism, during his first year in office President Joko Widodo pledged that foreign journalists would be allowed to travel and report freely in West Papua. Yet just a few months later, Cyril Payen of France 24 was declared persona non grata and banned from returning to report in Indonesia after his ‘Forgotten War of the Papuas’ documentary broadcast on 18 October 2015. The French ambassador was also summoned over the broadcast to the Indonesian foreign ministry. Two years later, press freedom remains severely curtailed. Foreign journalists have faced long bureaucracy, obstruction, jail or deportation and their local fixers have received threats of violence when trying to document violations by Indonesian security forces.

Censorship is also in place: an officially verified online publication, Suara Papua (the Voice of Papua) was blocked last November, and nine other websites relating to West Papua were blocked last month. This blackout of information both within and about West Papua stifles freedom of expression and allows state violence to flourish with impunity.

At least 30 people were unlawfully arrested at Mimika police station on 3 May 2017, following a peaceful demonstration demanding access for foreign journalists to be opened to Timika.

Concerned that this crisis would not be addressed during WPFD 2017, a coalition of Indonesian journalist and rights groups arranged an unofficial side event for the second day of the program, to raise awareness on the lack of press freedom in West Papua. As the side event began, over a dozen state intelligence officers arrived at Jakarta’s Century Park Hotel to order the event committee to halt the public discussion. When committee members refused to do so, police showed an objection letter signed by Yosep ‘Stanley’ Adi Prasetyo, head of Indonesia’s Press Council. The event went on regardless, but over the following days police continued their harassment by phoning and visiting committee member’s offices.

That the Indonesian Press Council chose to sidestep discussion of press freedom in West Papua at WPFD is especially disappointing, and shows its leader fails to understand that human rights and press freedom are guaranteed through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Stanley was quoted by the Jakarta Post as defending his move, dismissing the issue as a ‘domestic affair’. In fact, the annual WPFD event was established by the UN General Assembly in 1993 as a reminder to all member states to uphold press freedom. It celebrates and evaluates the implementation of fundamental principles of press freedom all over the world. This year, the event discussed specific infringements of press freedom in Turkey, Russia, China, Eritrea and elsewhere. Why should infringements in West Papua be classified as a ‘domestic affair’ whereas press freedom in other countries was freely examined in the course of WPFD 2017?

Veronica Koman (moderator), David Robie (Pacific Media Watch), Usman Hamid (Amnesty International Indonesia), Victor Mambor (a senior West Papuan journalist) speaking at Papua side event on 2 May 2017 at Century Park Hotel, Jakarta.

The Indonesian Press Council is an independent body given its mandate by Indonesia’s Law on the Press. It is not stipulated anywhere that the council must echo government policy. The Council’s ‘domestic affair’ argument, as pathetic as it is, should have been delivered by the Minister of Foreign Affairs or the president’s office. In this case, the head of press council has failed to uphold its mandate as an independent body in ensuring press freedom.

As the WPFD event closed on its third day, at least thirty West Papuans were unlawfully arrested in Timika, where the foreign-owned Freeport McMoran mine continues to escape direct scrutiny from international journalists for its environmental and human rights abuses. Shortly after, the Press Council chief joined a trip to cap off the WPFD event by visiting an illusion of paradise in the coral reefs of Raja Ampat, West Papua. But West Papua is far from a paradise for journalists, and by consciously shutting out this reality, this year’s WPFD has failed in its mission to advance the ‘media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies’.

Editor’s note: below is audio and translation of President Joko Widodo’s commitment, expressed to Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, to lift restrictions on reporting from Papua.


Veronica Koman is a human rights lawyer focusing on West Papua, refugee, gender and sexual orientation issues. She is a co-founder of ‘Papua itu Kita’ and Civil Liberty Defenders, and previously worked at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (YLBH Jakarta). Normally based in Jakarta, in July she will begin studies for a Master of Laws at Australian National University in Canberra.