Updated: May 13, 2015
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliate the Alliance of Independent Journalists Indonesia (AJI) cautiously welcome the end to restrictions for foreign journalists entering West Papua this week. However, while the IFJ heralds the important development in press coverage of the troubled region, it remains concerned for the future well-being of any journalists, fixers and contacts without formal guarantees to access from the Indonesian government against lengthy clearance procedures and monitoring of journalism activities.
On Sunday, May 10, Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, followed true to an election promise when he announced foreign journalists were now free to travel to West Papua. The news came a day after he granted clemency to five Papuan political prisoners in the Indonesia’s eastern-most province. Cabinet secretary, Andi Widjajanto, confirmed the president as saying: "Starting today, foreign journalists will be allowed and are free to come to Papua.”
But following on from the president’s comments, the co-ordinating minister for politics, law and security, Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, said journalists would still require permits, have to pass a screening process and would not be allowed to do anything that would “discredit Indonesia”.
AJI said it intended to push for a government guarantee to ensure the president “made good on his promises” and that what he has actioned is implemented concretely in Papua. The first step to opening the widest access for foreign journalists was to dissolve the institution's clearing house, which had become the government’s tool to restrict journalist reporting. AJI said the current scheme lacked transparency as it had no clear legal basis.
AJI Indonesia chairman, Suwarjono, and AJI Papua chairman, Victor Mambor, said in a joint statement: “The restrictions on reporting especially for the foreign journalists in Papua have occurred since the integration of Papua into Indonesia. Foreign journalists wishing to come to Papua for reportage must apply through the Clearing House that consists of 12 ministries and government agencies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Police, the State Intelligent Agency and the Coordination Ministry for Politic, Law and Security.”
Pacific Freedom Forum chair, Titi Gabi, said: "There are still deep doubts that Jokowi has the political power to enforce this promise, but the announcement alone represents a historic moment in centuries of foreign oppression in Papua.”
The opening of access for journalists to Papua would be the beginning of improvement for Papuan community in uncovering corruption and human rights violations as well as positive developments, AJI said.
“A wide open access in Papua for journalists will definitely be the dawn of progress for the people in Papua province. It will be much easier to unveil corruption and human right violation issues that have long been seemingly covered up and cultivated by a group of people,” it said.
But AJI and the IFJ remain concerned at the potential for ongoing intimidation and monitoring of journalists and their contacts in the region. IFJ has documented that previously when foreign journalists were granted access to the restricted region, it was generally done so under the provision that they were shadowed by a government representative. West Papuan journalists are similarly restricted in their reporting, particularly regarding the separatist movement.
AJI said: “At the local level, the freedom of press should be indicated with no intimidation against the foreign journalist, such as being spied, followed or terrorized that might constrain their journalistic activities.”
It also said the public’s right to information on Papua was “in accordance to the Law No.40/1999 of Press, which said the freedom of press is guaranteed as basic right of citizen and in order to guarantee the freedom of press, the press has a right to search, obtain and distribute any ideas and information without censorship, ban or broadcast prohibition”.
The IFJ has been a long-time critic of the harsh restrictions on foreign journalists entering West Papua which it said seriously curtailed the ability of the media to freely report the situation in the country and suggested an attempt to conceal information from the world. In 2014, Indonesia was put in the international spotlight following the arrest and long-term detainment of two French journalists travelling in the country on tourist visas. At the time of his inauguration, the IFJ sent a letter to President Widodo stressing the urgent need for action on his pre-election commitment for media freedom and opening access to Papua.
The IFJ said: “While this move by President Widodo is extremely welcome, the jury is still out as to whether all impediments and blocking tactics to free reporting have been removed for foreign reporters as well as local journalists. This is not something that can come with an announcement but with a meaningful commitment to press freedom in this region.”
Human Rights Watch’s chief Indonesia researcher, Andreas Harsono, said the opening up of Papua to foreign journalists could help resolve a decades-long separatist conflict in the region. "I believe in quality journalism, however bad the situation." he said. "Foreign journalists can ... elevate the quality of journalism in Papua. If we have quality journalism the society will have better informed citizenry, and better citizenry will provide better decision-making processes."
AJI said it would continue to monitor the access situation for foreign journalist and calls on the Indonesian government to issue a guarantee of its intention to open reporting on Papua.
In keeping with his promises, the IFJ calls on the Indonesian government and President Widodo to abolish the clearing house system and to make efforts to bring an end to the entrenched culture of surveillance by the military and police in Papua and ensure any intimidation, attacks or threats against media and their local fixers and contacts are given priority investigation.
For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0946