Since August 2019, there have been mass protests in Papua and West Papua, Indonesia. Protesters have demanded self-determination and called attention to racism by the Indonesian authorities. CIVICUS speaks to Arnold Belau, a West Papuan journalist and editor of Suara Papua (Papuan Voice), about the government’s crackdown on protests and the intimidation experienced by journalists reporting on the abuses.
What has been the cause of the recent mass protests? What are the protesters’ demands?
The cause of the mass action in Papua was the racism experienced in mid-August by Papuan students in Surabaya on the island of Java. Their student dormitory was raided by the security forces and locals verbally attacked them and hurled racist insults at them. Papuans demand an end to the persecution and racism against them. Such acts are not new. They have been happening for a long time against Papuans. This case is not the first and it would not be the last.
Papua is a region where there have been longstanding demands for independence by local Papuans because of systematic human rights violations against them by the Indonesian security forces, discrimination, displacement of their communities and extraction of natural resources. Despite its natural wealth, Papua remains one of the least economically developed regions of Indonesia.
What has been the government's response to the protest?
The government's response to the Papuan protests has been excessive. Instead of seeking to understand the reasons for the protest and to address the longstanding racism against Papuans, it has arrested and detained many of the protesters who have spoken out. Added to this, the government blocked the internet and deployed the military in excessive numbers to the West Papuan region. This will not solve the problem. Instead, the military presence will worsen the atmosphere.
There are reports of pro-Indonesian civilian organisations operating in the region. What are they doing?
There are some mass organisations known as Merah Putih (Red and White) operating in the West Papuan region. There are usually close to the military and police. Also, they often make statements to the effect that Papua is a legitimate region within the framework of the Republic of Indonesia. Usually they organise demonstrations to the Papua Parliament to which they bring red and white flags, the colours of the Indonesian state, particularly on important dates for Papua, such as 1 December, which marks the 1969 annexation of Papua by Indonesia. They usually turn up then. However, they are few in number.
What is the current situation of activists in Papua?
At present the situation has improved. However, there are still many security officials on the streets. Their presence certainly increases the trauma of the Papuan people because of the abuses perpetrated by the Indonesian military apparatus. Their presence does not provide security for Papuans. Arrests of pro-independence activists are still ongoing in Papua and outside Papua. At least 10 people have been arrested and 62 have been identified as suspects. But this number is certain to increase because the security forces are still seeking to arrest activists who they suspect are behind the protests throughout Papua.
How does the internet closure affect the work of journalists?
Internet access has been blocked since 19 August 2019. The internet is still being blocked by the state in certain areas, especially affecting internet access via smartphones. However, we can now at least access the internet via wifi, which was unblocked in early September. From the moment the internet was blocked, we could not work anymore. Our work activities were disrupted because we work in the online media space. We felt the most impact because we could not write and disseminate information to the public. As well as that, readers and visitors to our online website dropped dramatically. This is the impact that we felt. However, since the beginning of September, we have been able to work again, with wifi access now operating normally. But internet access via smartphone has not yet been unblocked in Jayapura, the capital and largest city in Papua.
Do journalists face threats and harassment for doing their job
Those of us who are native reporters from Papua often experience harassment and threats. Victor Mambor, the editor of Jubi Newspaper and Jubi online, is facing serious threats, including ‘doxxing’. ‘Doxxing’ is where personal or identifying documents or details are shared online about someone without their consent. I have also experienced this. Most recently, on 9 September 2019, the authorities went to the home of Benny Mawel, a reporter who works for Jubi and the Jakarta Post, to search his house. The threats to local Papuan journalists are greater. This is because we face discrimination when reporting. This occurs especially when covering abuses during protests in Papua. I think that freedom of the press in Papua must improve. The authorities must open access for foreign journalists to come to report freely in Papua without being restricted and without supervision by the government or military.
What can the international community do to support the work of journalists in Papua?
The international community must speak up and support journalists and the media in Papua when they face intimidation and threats. They must call on the Indonesian authorities to respect and protect journalists so we can write freely without threats and intimidation.