Widodo’s lifting of ban on foreign media in Papua is step in right direction

Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced over the weekend that his government would allow foreign journalists to report unrestricted from the country’s eastern Papuan provinces, breaking a virtual 50-year blackout of international news coverage of the restive region. The announcement raises the prospect of an independent media check on one of Asia’s most under-reported civil conflicts between the Indonesian state and Free Papua Movement rebel group.

Widodo’s announcement coincided with his granting clemency to five political prisoners accused of being members of an ethnic Papuan insurgency that since the 1960s has waged a low-intensity armed struggle for independence from Indonesian rule. Foreign journalists have until now required special government permission to report from the remote region–permits which were seldom, if ever, granted to probing political journalists.

“Starting today, foreign journalists will be allowed and are free to come to Papua, as they are to other parts of Indonesia,” Cabinet Secretary Andi Widjajanto quoted Widodo as saying during his trip to the region on Sunday, according to news reports. Symbolically, a small group of foreign journalists based in Jakarta, the national capital, accompanied the national leader on his Papuan tour, reports said.

The shift will be welcome, if Widodo’s announcement is universally followed by all government agencies, including security forces. There is reason for skepticism: Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs, told the Jakarta Globe that foreign journalists were free to travel to Papua, but would still need special permission to report from Papua’s mountainous hinterland, where insurgents are most active. He warned foreign reporters against “looking for facts that aren’t true from armed groups.”

In a blog post in March, CPJ called on Widodo to honor his vow made upon taking office in October to open media access to Papua as part of his initiative to bring peace and prosperity to the underdeveloped region. The blog noted that foreign reporting permits require the approval of 18 ministries and have been restricted to tourism writers and Japanese reporters covering the search for the remains of Japanese soldiers killed in Papua during World War II.

Sunday’s announcement, even if certain areas of Papua are still restricted, will attract a different breed of journalist. Foreign investigative reporters can be expected to probe sensitive allegations made by international rights groups and foreign governments of state-sponsored human rights abuses, including arbitrary killings and unlawful detentions.

The Asia Human Rights Commission alleged in a 2013 report that an Indonesian military operation in 1977-78 used the toxic defoliant napalm against civilians in Papua’s Central Highlands, resulting in more than 4,000 deaths in a campaign the group characterized as a “neglected genocide.” Reports at the time said the Indonesian government has never recognized any mass killings in Papua and has denied ever using napalm in the area.

For press freedom to take genuine root in Papua, Widodo’s government in Jakarta and military officials based in the region must allow foreign reporters to do their jobs without fear of reprisal or deportation. It will also require an end to official surveillance and intimidation of the local media, nongovernmental organizations, and civil society groups. Human Rights Watch and the Australia-based Sydney Morning Herald published reports in 2011 based on hundreds of leaked internal intelligence documents that showed the sweeping extent of the military’s surveillance network in Papua.

Balanced and fair reporting on allegations of abuse would ideally lead Papua down the long, hard road toward truth and reconciliation, a crucial step to ending Indonesia’s last active civil conflict. By opening Papua to foreign reporters, even if only partially, Widodo has made a bold move in that direction. The challenge ahead will be to maintain that openness amid independent and in-depth reporting that aims to ascertain whether the widespread allegations of state abuses in Papua stand up to outside scrutiny.

[Reporting from Bangkok]