Indonesian President lifts media ban in West Papua, Aus Gov should push for human rights monitoring

The announcement from Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo that Indonesia will lift its decades-long ban on journalists travelling to its troubled Papuan provinces is a welcome step in the right direction.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Communications, Tom Clarke, said whilst the move was modest and long-over due, it could have tangible positive flow-on effects.

“For too long the world has been blind to the serious and frequent human rights atrocities occurring in West Papua, so obviously if journalists are allowed to travel to and report from those areas then we may be able to get a better picture of what’s going on and the true extent of the human rights abuses occurring,” Mr Clarke said.

However, Mr Clarke warned that the impact of allowing media access would be limited if there weren’t also guarantees that the journalists would be allowed to travel freely without monitoring and interference.

“It’s one thing to let journalists in, it’s another thing though if security forces are still going to tail the journalists and interrogate everyone they have spoken to. In that type of environment of fear, it’s understandable that local Papuans could be quite reluctant to speak to foreign journalists as they know it will be followed by a knock on the door from authorities renowned for their brutality,” said Mr Clarke.

The Human Rights Law Centre is calling on the Australian Government to capitalise on this positive move from President Widodo, by pushing for access to human rights monitors and international non-government organisations.

“Successive Australian Governments have put West Papua in the ‘too hard basket’ and have failed to speak up for human rights. Australia should actually be encouraging Indonesia to meets its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Indonesia voluntarily signed up to,” said Mr Clarke.

During his visit to Papua, President Widodo also granted clemency to five political prisoners. Human Rights Watch’s Indonesia researcher, Andreas Harsono, is reported as welcoming the move but suggesting it may have been more about “image-making” and was critical that Widodo hadn’t granted an amnesty instead which wouldn’t have required the prisoners to admit guilt. (Update: A statement from HRW can be found here.)

Mr Clarke said granting media and international NGOs access to Papua would be a good first step, but ending the violence and human rights abuses will require considerably more commitment and work from the President and Australia should encourage him to follow through. 

“The people of West Papua have been denied the opportunity to participate in free and fair processes to express their political desires. If this is to ever occur then the violence and impunity with which the Indonesian military acts must be brought to an end,” said Mr Clarke. 

For further comments, please contact Tom Clarke on 0422 545 763.

Related: (Opinion) Indonesia lifting ban on foreign journalists is a step forward for human rights.