Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, President Widodo's right-hand man, discusses conditions for journalists with the press freedom delegation in Jakarta. (Sumit Galhotra/CPJ)

One year on, challenges remain for press in Indonesia

By Sumit Galhotra/CPJ Asia Program Research Associate on December 21, 2015 10:20 AM ET

"Change does not come overnight," President Joko Widodo's right-hand man, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, told an international delegation of 10 media and freedom of expression groups that visited Indonesia last month.

During the week-long trip organized by local press freedom group the Alliance of Independent Journalists, the delegation met with journalists as well as members of civil society and the government to follow up on issues raised during its first mission one year ago. At the heart of the delegation's concerns were media restrictions in Papua, restrictive laws that hamper free expression, and reports of violence against journalists. Today, the delegation published its findings and recommendations.

More than six months have passed since the president's historic announcement to immediately lift restrictions on international journalists entering Papua, the country's easternmost region that has been virtually off-limits to the international press for about 50 years. Yet the process for obtaining access to the region continues to be marred by obstacles and confusion, the delegation found. Accounts from journalists with whom the delegation met pointed to non-compliance from some authorities including high-ranking officials in the Widodo administration and members of the police and military. "There are changes since Jokowi's announcement but the question is about authority," said Victor Mambor, head of the Alliance of Independent Journalists' Papua chapter, referring to the president as he is popularly known. "His influence is limited in Papua."

Many international journalists trying to gain access to Papua have reported facing surveillance, orders that they be accompanied by minders for the duration of their stay, and bureaucratic burdens of providing details on sources and fixers, potentially putting them at risk, local journalists with whom the delegation met, said.

In May, Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, the then-coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, defended these practices. "We aren't spying on [journalists]. We're simply monitoring their activities," he said, according to the Jakarta Post.

The extent of these challenges was apparent on the eve of my arrival, when the Jakarta Post reported on how three Papuans had been questioned in connection with French journalist Marie Dhumieres' reporting in the region in October. According to Human Rights Watch, they were detained for 10 hours.

Before Widodo announced an end to restrictions, journalists needed permission from an array of government offices to report in Papua. Permission was seldom granted: some were outright denied journalist visas and others were left in visa limbo, CPJ research shows. Journalists who tried to circumvent official channels by entering the country on a tourist visa have been arrested or deported.

Panjaitan, the current coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, acknowledged that challengesremain. In a meeting at his office in Jakarta, he said the Widodo administration was committed to ensuring access to Papua for the international press.

CPJ joins an international press freedom delegation in Indonesia, that met Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, center. (Sumit Galhotra/CPJ)

While in the provincial capital, Jayapura, I was among members of the delegation who met with Fransiscus Mote, spokesman for the Papuan governor's office. Mote said the governor's administration was committed to ensuring access for international journalists in the restive region and added that journalists did not need additional approval from local authorities. He said the governor planned to issue a special decree in Papua based on Widodo's announcement. "We hope that all institutions under the president, including the police and military, will follow," he said. Mote added that he planned to educate civil servants in his region on how to interact with journalists.

Requests by the delegation to meet with high-ranking Papuan police and military officials, to discuss challenges for the press, were declined.

Local journalists reporting in the province, especially ethnic Papuans, told the delegation they also face difficulties. Given the sensitive nature of reporting in the region, violence and intimidation remained a routine risk for journalists. This fear has given way to self-censorship for many, many of the journalists told us.

Those with whom the delegation met, including Mambor, claimed intelligence agents were embedded in local media outlets. Aryo Wisanggeni, a member of the Alliance of Independent Journalists who has reported in Papua, said low salaries left some journalists vulnerable to paid offers to act as informers for intelligence agencies.

A view of Jayapura in Papua. Despite the president's vow to ease restrictions on access to the province, journalists say they still face difficulties. (Sumit Galhotra/CPJ)

Journalists across the archipelago nation of more than 17,000 islands, continue to work in an atmosphere of threats and violence, the delegation found. While CPJ has not recorded a work-related journalist killing in Indonesia since 2012, attacks continue with impunity. During a visit to Makassar in South Sulawesi province, Ambon-based press freedom advocate Insany Syahbarwati said that while the number of attacks had decreased since the delegation's visit last year, the attacks had become "more serious in nature."

Frequently police were responsible for attacks on the media across the country, according to members of the Alliance of Independent Journalists.

Police representatives in Makassar and Papua declined requests to meet with the delegation.

Press freedom in Indonesia has come a long way since the days of Suharto's 32-year reign. However, the country's record continues to be marred by the impunity in murders of journalists, including that of Fuad Muhammad Syafruddin, also known as Udin, killed almost two decades ago. Arfi Bambani, secretary-general of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, told the delegation, "The reason we push on Udin's case is we hope resolution to his case can serve as a precedent for other cases." Panjaitan told the delegation he would review the list of unresolved journalist killings.

Change does not have to come overnight. But if the Indonesian government is committed to press freedom, as its rhetoric suggests, it needs to take greater strides in tackling the problems journalists working there face.

The full list of observations of recommendations can be found here.

[Reporting from Jayapura, Makassar, and Jakarta]

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