The Jakarta Post
Each year in early May ' when World Press Freedom Day comes around ' journalists and human rights groups would repeat their pleas to successive Indonesian governments to lift reporting restrictions on West Papua. Many had become resigned to these ritual requests being met with a predictably ritual brush off.
The breakthrough all had hoped for finally came last Sunday in Merauke, Papua, where President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo was attending a harvest ceremony.
The President was quoted as saying 'Starting from today, foreign journalists are allowed to and can visit Papua as freely as they can any other part of Indonesia.'
This relatively low key announcement was something of an anti-climax after many years of acrimony and the recent jailing and subsequent release of two French journalists in Papua.
A measure of this surprise and disbelief was perhaps evident in The Jakarta Post's news story of the announcement which placed the word 'free' to report in quotation marks.
In a similar vein, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) has cautiously welcomed the statement ' one of AJI's main themes on Press Freedom day this year was reporters' access to West Papua.
AJI has reminded us that these reporting restrictions have been imposed since Papua first became part of Indonesia in the 1960s. Foreign journalists who wish to cover Papua have to go through a 'clearing house' involving 12 ministries or state agencies, ranging from the Foreign Ministry, the Police, and the State Intelligence Agency.
This 'clearing process' is not transparent, not subject to legal challenge, and in reality, serves as a blocking mechanism for press coverage.
As AJI argues, a first step in opening access for foreign journalists must be to dissolve the 'clearing house'. At the local level, the implementation of meaningful and practical press freedom measures ' i.e freedom from intimidation, and surveillance ' must accompany this statement.
Human Rights Watch has identified the conduct of the Indonesian security forces in Papua as breeding a 'deepening antipathy' between native Papuans and Indonesian authorities.
It reports this week that the security forces in Papua have been implicated in dozens of human rights abuses over the past decade, including the killing of five unarmed peaceful protesters in the remote town of Enarotali on Dec. 8, 2014.
Three separate official probes into the shootings, conducted by the police, the national human rights commission, and an informal military-and-police effort, have yet to be revealed.
Papuan NGOs report that some 38 Papuans remain imprisoned, detained, on trial, or awaiting trial on charges that violate their freedom of expression and association. We may hope that their predicament can now been publicized more easily.
Viktor Mambor, chief editor of the Jayapura-based Tabloid Jubi and the head of AJI's Papua chapter reports that he has directly experienced various kinds of threats and intimidation in Papua ' even threats with weapons. At present however, he adds that violence against journalists in Papua is conducted by civilians, and no longer by the state.
AJI has welcomed the decision as representing a beginning of real progress for the people of Papua. The importance of unfettered press scrutiny cannot be overstated.
Corruption and human rights violations that have bedeviled the region can now be widely scrutinized and the perpetrators exposed.
Also of real concern are government efforts to control the flow of information from Papua, which have been persistent. Official documents leaked in 2011 revealed that the Indonesian military employs about two dozen Papua-based Indonesian journalists as informers.
The military has also financed and trained journalists and bloggers, warning them about alleged 'foreign interference' in Papua, including by the US and other governments. This must cease.
AJI has also reminded us that press freedom remains problematical in other areas in Indonesia such as in Central Sulawesi or Aceh, so Papua is not the last redoubt of press restrictions.
Only a totally free media will permit the progress of Papuans to be monitored. An accurate and freely obtained picture of the condition of Papuans is crucial for all Indonesians who, according to Indonesian law, have the right to seek, obtain, and disseminate ideas and information without censorship.
It is important for Papuans to be able to tell their stories to their own country and to the regional and international community.
While welcoming the President's statement, press groups remain skeptical since real progress will require concrete steps to implement this decision ' for a start, by dismantling the 'clearing house' and by lifting all practical and bureaucratic obstacles.
Serious questions will remain about the degree to which the security forces in Papua will respect the right of foreign media to freely operate in Papua.
A free press needs not only laws but institutions and community attitudes to undergird its freedom to report what will often be unpopular truths.
When accepting the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism at Harvard University in early March, the celebrated Turkish journalist Hasan Cemal warned that democracy is much more than elections only ' however essential those elections are.
He said ' ['¦] getting the most votes is not a license to violate democratic values, nor to force the surrender of the judiciary, nor to ignore the separation of powers, to trample on freedom of expression, to destroy free and independent media, nor to subjugate civil society.'
Part and parcel of a free society is the freedom to report.
The writer is a legal consultant of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia Pacific, which has been a long term supporter of Papua journalists and of the lifting of restrictions upon foreign reporting of Papua.
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