Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo announced on May 10, 2015, that the government would immediately lift longstanding access restrictions on accredited foreign journalists seeking to report from the provinces of Papua and West Papua.

The president’s announcement sparked optimism that Indonesia would soon end its decades-long restrictions not only on foreign reporters, but also on UN officials, representatives of international aid groups, and others seeking to work in Papua.

President Jokowi’s May 10 announcement, while greeted by acclaim in some quarters, produced backlash in others. And it was not followed with an official presidential instruction, allowing room for non-compliance by government agencies and security forces opposed to the change. Various senior officials have since publicly contradicted the president’s statement.

The problem is not only limited to the barriers that keep foreign journalists out of Papua, but also extends to the conditions facing those who get in, including surveillance, harassment, and at times, arbitrary arrest by Indonesian security forces. This is particularly true of journalists seeking to report on Papuan social or political grievances or on the practices of the military, police, and intelligence agencies.

In addition to the obstacles facing journalists, staff members of international nongovernmental organizations, academics, and some foreign observers have been denied access to Papua. The security forces closely monitor the activities of international groups that the government permits to operate in Papua—those that seek to address human rights concerns get particular scrutiny. Government documents leaked in 2011 revealed that the government and security forces routinely consider foreigners in Papua to be assisting the armed separatist Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka or OPM) through funding, moral support, and the documentation of poor living conditions and human rights abuses.

Government restrictions on foreigners have extended to United Nations officials and academics Indonesian authorities perceive as hostile. In 2013 the government rejected the proposed visit of Frank La Rue, then the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, because he insisted on including Papua on his itinerary. Foreign academics who do get permission to visit the region have been subjected to surveillance by the security forces. Those perceived to have pro-independence sympathies have been placed on visa blacklists.

Removing access restrictions alone, of course, will not resolve the underlying political tensions and conflict in Papua or dispel the suspicions of Indonesian officials, but it is an essential step toward broader respect for rights: shining a light on Papua, not keeping it hidden from view, is the best way to ensure the region has a rights-respecting future.


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