Indonesia lifting ban on foreign journalists is a step forward for human rights

This article was first published by The Age.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo's announcement that a de facto ban on journalists travelling to Indonesia's troubled Papuan provinces will be lifted, is a modest but important step forward for democracy and human rights.

For too long the world has been blind to the serious and frequent human rights abuses occurring in West Papua –freedom of expression and assembly are routinely crushed, while reports of torture and political assassinations are all too frequent. Yet here we have for the first time, an Indonesian President acknowledging that there are problems and that it's not acceptable for a modern democracy to simply keep journalists locked out. That in itself is a step forward.

However, it wasn't long before the back-pedalling began.

Following the President's announcement that "starting today, we allow foreign journalists to go freely to Papua," senior officials were talking about the remaining need for journalists to acquire "permits", avoid "discrediting" Indonesia and how they must not seek information from armed groups.

So while the President is saying the right things, the proof will be in the pudding, and we'll have to wait and see if journalists really will be allowed to report freely from within Papua.

In addition to who the authorities grant access to, a key question is whether the announcement will actually result in any change to practices such as security forces tailing journalists and interrogating locals that dare to speak with them. In an environment of fear, it's understandable that local Papuans could be quite reluctant to speak to foreign journalists if they know it will be followed by a knock on the door from authorities renowned for their brutality.

In another small but positive sign that the President acknowledges the need to temper Jakarta's vehement handling of the independence movement within West Papua, he also granted clemency to five Papuan political prisoners.

However, again the move could be easily viewed from a glass-half-empty perspective. The President could have granted an amnesty, but instead chose clemency which requires the prisoners to admit to guilt before being released. Further, many other political prisoners remain unlawfully behind bars on charges that violate their freedom of expression and association.

Whilst the steps are modest or amount to a case of "two steps forward, one step back", the mere fact that steps are being taken remains an encouraging sign. For decades human rights have been trampled in West Papua with a culture of impunity surrounding the Indonesian military, whilst countries such as Australia have been all too willing to turn a blind eye.

It's time for the Australian government to adopt a new approach. It should start taking principled and vocal stances in the defence of human rights.

The Australian government's ability to do this is obviously diminished by its inconsistency and its own declining human rights record. For example, the support previous governments had given for the death penalty being used against the Bali bombers surely did not help when the current government was seeking clemency for the two Australians recently executed for smuggling drugs out of Indonesia.

Likewise Australia's practice of dumping asylum seekers in lifeboats into Indonesian waters – which is something Indonesia has consistently raised its opposition to – clearly doesn't help the relationship and also undermines the credibility of Australian calls to respect human rights.

Having said all that, previous bad decisions are not an argument for making more bad decisions. It's never too late to start doing the right thing.

The Australian government should seek to use its unique relationship with Indonesia to encourage it to meet its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Indonesia voluntarily signed up to some years ago.

It should capitalise on the momentum created by the President's announcement about allowing international media into West Papua and encourage him to go further and also allow international NGOs and human rights monitors in. (Tellingly, even the Red Cross was forced to close their office in Papua in 2009.)

In addition to diplomatic efforts, the Australian Government could and should take practical steps to ensure that Australian taxpayer money isn't being spent on supporting the perpetrators of human rights violations occurring in Papua. The Government needs to review its relationship with the Indonesian military and introduce safeguards that seek to ensure the military and police units we train and support aren't committing human rights atrocities.

Of course, fuelling the unrest are the valid resentments surrounding the fact that the people of West Papua have been denied the opportunity to participate in free and fair processes to express their political desires.

Free media access to Papua would be a great start, but when the reports start to roll in of ongoing human rights abuses, the conversation will need to move to how to end the violence and how to help foster a safe environment where free democratic discourse can take place.

Tom Clarke is Director of Communications at the Human Rights Law Centre. He is on Twitter @TomHRLC