Oct 21, 2016

Continuing Restrictions on Free Expression in West Papua

UNPO conducted an interview with Aprila R.A. Wayar on her experiences as a journalist carrying out her profession in West Papua. Wayar was born in West Papua and grew up in Java. After graduating from the local university in Java, she returned to West Papua to work as a journalist. Her personal experiences shed light on the restrictions of the freedom of opinion and expression frequently experienced by local and foreign journalists in West Papua.

As the experiences by Ms Wayar reveal, journalists working in West Papua are limited in their freedom of expression out of fear of legal and social sanctions if they openly display their genuine opinions. She emphasizes that “as a journalist in West Papua, I cannot express to people around me what is truly going on.” Such self-censorship, which generally arises from fear of violence and harassment by public officials as well as from social condemnation of pro-independence sentiments, often provokes journalists to conceal their political views. Journalists who do report from the Papuan perspective while opposing those of other people, Wayar points out, are often condemned for being separatist or labelled pro-independence. In addition to social denouncement, journalists that have reported on sensitive political topics as well as persons interviewed by journalists have often been subject to physical violence as well as murder and kidnapping.

Foreign journalists have additionally been subjected to foreign media restrictions. Even though a 25-year ban on foreign media that prevented foreign journalists from entering West Papua was lifted last year, “the ban was lifted only on paper,” Wayar reveals.  She points out that the Indonesian government and security forces continue their efforts to impede foreign media access. Foreign journalist that have uttered critical political views have been placed on visa-blacklists. In 2015, Cyril Payen for example, a reporter for France 24 television, faced a visa ban after having produced a documentary that was condemned for generating pro-independence sentiments. Furthermore, journalists that have managed to get a visa to report on West Papua have been subjected to monitoring of their activities in the area, which might influence the content of their news reports. Such control that government officials have over journalists might produce a lack of news stories that cover multiple sides, including those of people that are critical of government policies. The result of such restricted foreign media access is, Wayar argues, that the international community including those who promote the human rights of the West Papuan people are insufficiently aware of the local issues experienced by Papuan people. 

Raising awareness of the challenges that indigenous peoples in West Papua face is crucial for enacting change in the area, Wayar emphasizes. Papuan people run the risk of losing their identity: “in 2050, there will be no Papuan people left.” She points out that the age-old history of Papua and its unique culture is being lost because it is not transferred to the next generation. Instead, a new ‘history’ is taught that ignores Papuans’ indigenous culture and promotes an Indonesian flavored story. Additional challenges that Papuan people face are widespread immigration from foreigners as well as poverty and insufficient access to education and health care, which is only accessible for those living in large cities. In order to generate improvements of the living and social conditions of the Papuan people, Wayar argues, the marginalization of indigenous peoples needs increased national and international awareness. As such, the profession of journalism and the safe performance thereof might be of crucial importance for the wellbeing of the people in West Papua.