West Papuans unhappy with Indonesian rulership over western New Guinea. Since the outbreak of the armed conflict between West Papuan guerillas and the Indonesian military over a thousand civilians have lost their lives, many thousands of people are internally displaced and mass arrests of students and pro-independence activists occur on a nearly daily basis.
Knights of Free Speech Risk Death in West Papua
The Indonesian state has cracked down on free speech ever since the western half of New Guinea became of interest to the Southeast Asian nation. Independent media voices are censored, there are systematic internet blackouts, and foreign reporters are deported, banned—or they die.
By Klas Lundström
WEST PAPUA After some chitchat in the chat forum, the question falls: “Before we move on anywhere, I have to ask you—are you really a Swedish person?”
After a video greeting and some extra security measures, Filep—which is not his real name—is satisfied enough to move on. The conversation can evolve and dig into what really shapes his existence: journalism.
Filep paints an unpleasant picture of everyday life for the knights of free speech. Blackmail, harassment, outright political sabotage. Adding to the bleak image is the growing threat from paramilitary militias, supported by Indonesian authorities, and whose presence in recent weeks have figured in the form of sharp bullets and deadly raids.
“Indonesian authorities are involved in the activities of the militias,” says Filep, who has worked as a journalist for almost a decade, but who nowadays is forced to report underground.
Censorship, threats and development
In 2016, Indonesia blocked internet access to 14 news sites, offering readers and viewers journalism that challenges Jakarta’s West Papuan narrative, one that ever since the 1960s has repeated the mantra of bringing “development” and “democracy” to people who otherwise would remain in the “Stone Age.” A cemented policy that has brought infrastructure investments, mining establishments and palm oil plantations without the consent of the West Papuan population, along with a political discourse where expressions of dissatisfaction in the wake of terrorist attacks on Indonesian soil—e.g. in Bali, in 2002—are easily dismissed as “security threats.”
The ongoing humanitarian crisis in West Papua—unfolded in December 2018, following the deaths of Indonesian construction workers, followed by intensive Indonesian military operations—has deteriorated life for civilians, pro-independence activists, students and independent journalists. Journalists are openly branded as “guerrilla voices” and “hoax media”—false accusations with a purpose, according to Filep. The accusation itself is enough to become targets for militias’ arbitrary raids.
“Threats occur either per phone or in social media”, says Filep.
Jailed East Timorese anti-independence militia leader Eurico Guterres gestures during a court appearance in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, April 30, 2001. Guterres, wanted by the United Nations for crimes committed during the destruction of the territory in 1999, was sentenced Monday to six months in an Indonesian prison on charges of illegal possession of weapons. (AP Photo/Chris Brummitt)
”Red and White militias” with bloodstained fists
The arbitrary violence—whose representatives are rarely brought to justice—has been a permanent feature of Indonesia’s West Papua policy. In accordance with the country’s democratic leap in the wake of ruthless ruler Suharto’s resignation and the fall of his Western backed “New Order” regime in 1998, militias with close ties and bonds to organized crime and military branches have lost Aceh and East Timor as battlefields and economically lucrative arenas—leaving West Papua as one of few remaining hunting grounds.
In 2003, the mining town of Timika—whose existence circles around the gold and copper mine Grasberg, co-operated by the Indonesian state and Freeport McMoRan—became a refuge for the Timorese war criminal Eurico Guterres.
Guterres fought against the Timorese independence movement Fretilin with Indonesian support and weapons. In 1999, he made himself a well-known figure in the eyes of the world, when his cruel and bestial war crimes came to light prior to East Timor’s independence referendum. Within the framework of Guterres’s Papuan militia—Laskhar Merah Putih (”Red and White Warriors”), and nowadays also active as a “social movement”—Eurico Guterres rooted a culture and ideology which, in its far-right universe, excused the preservation of the Indonesian identity, at any cost.
In 2020, militias are—albeit unofficial—an integral part of the Indonesian security apparatus in West Papua. In September, The Guardian reported that the military and police encourage militias to attack West Papuans, in a time when increasing mass arrests of pro-independence activists and students have overlapped with systematic internet blackouts.
Journalists are imprisoned, banned—or they die
The Indonesian President Joko Widodo has “failed to keep his campaign pledges promising respect for press freedom,” writes Reporters Without Borders.
Widodo’s presidency has been marked by drastic restrictions on media access to West Papua where violence against local journalists continues to grow, Reporters Without Frontiers summarizes: “Foreign journalists and local fixers are liable to be arrested and prosecuted, both those who try to document the Indonesian military’s abuses and those who just cover humanitarian issues.”
The Indonesian state has not, however, hesitated to crack down on foreign journalists throughout its rulership over West Papua. The conflict that has plagued the western half of New Guinea for nearly 70 years has a number of reporter’s deaths on its conscience. Including two filmmakers: Australian-Papuan Mark Worth and Swedish Per-Ove Carlsson, who died in 2004 and 1992 respectively. Worth was found dead in his hotel room, Carlsson in the room at the Catholic mission school where he spent the last night of his life. Both filmmaker’s deaths were quickly officially dismissed as self-inflicted—conclusions both critics and relatives refuse to reconcile with.
In February 2017, a documentary film project in northern West Papua derailed after the French film team’s permit was revoked by Indonesian authorities. The film crew—led by Basile Longchamp—were expelled and ported from Indonesia for the foreseeable future. The year before another French journalist, Cyril Payen, was denied entry due to his documentary “Forgotten war of the Papuas.”
Hindered media—an Indonesian tradition
According to Filep, the reason for Indonesia’s actions and closed doors for independent reporting is simple: “They want us to report according to their wishes,” he says.
Therefore, the issue of Indonesia’s blackout of journalism concerns more than merely security policy priorities and the struggle for the “correct narrative.” The issue also concerns the silence that continues to characterize one of the planet’s most isolated pockets.
“It’s through reporting that West Papuans and the outside world can understand what is really happening here, in terms of social, political, economic and environmental issues as well as infrastructure projects, education, health and so on,” says Filep.
But not merely West Papua has experienced Indonesia’s implemented muzzle of free speech. At times, the press was censored under the nation’s first president Sukarno, and even more systematically and openly under “Bung Karno’s” successor, Suharto. Goenawan Mohamad, one of the country’s most prominent writers and founder of the renowned weekly magazine Tempo, concludes that Indonesia “was born without any contact with reality.” Without real knowledge of all the worlds, cultures and languages hidden beneath the surface of the Indonesian archipelago’s oceans, forests, volcanic plains and tropical jungles. In that particular situation, it may tempt you to resort to censorship instead of dialogue, but the question is how long the silence will keep the gate closed to the cries of complaint.
“A nation must always be prepared for reality,” writes Goenawan Mohamad.
A Papuan activist holds up a separatist ’Morning Star’ flag during a rally near the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. A group of West Papuan students in Indonesia’s capital staged the protest against racism and called for independence for their region. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Violence kicking downwards
It is in that reality West Papua’s independent journalists out their assignments, in an underground existence, in a corner of the world where authorities rule thanks to a well-nourished violent capital.
“The state’s security actors show a surprising tolerance for crime and violence amongst civilians, so long as it is not directed at the state; when state actors are threatened, however, they respond with indiscriminate violence,” write conflict and violence researchers Bobby Anderson and Adrian Morel in an analysis.
Decades of systematic violence which, in reality, has turned out to be long-term politically toothless. The West Papuan resistance continue—both in the shape of guerilla warfare, and as growing peaceful movement, gaining support from neighboring Pacific nations and support network around the globe—despite Indonesia’s aim for a military solution.
To Filep, there is no alternative but to continue.
“We must tell each other and the world outside that West Papuans also have the right to a proper education, that we have the right to good health, human rights and a functioning economy,” summarizes the West Papuan independent journalist.