Urgent appeal filed with UN Special Rapporteur by West Papuan journalist over internet blocking by Indonesia

Widespread and unprecedented protests have taken place across Indonesia and in West Papua this week, with tens of thousands of West Papuans protesting against Indonesian occupation and calling for a UN referendum on independence. The situation on the ground in West Papua is fraught, with Indonesia having deployed 1,000 more troops to an already heavily militarised territory in response to the protests. In an move reminiscent of actions taken by Egypt during the Arab Spring and current restrictions in Kashmir, the Indonesian government blocked the internet in West Papua, effective Wednesday 21 August 2019.

Victor Mambor is a celebrated West Papuan journalist and editor of the West Papuan newspaper, Tabloid Jubi. In recent days, he has faced harassment and intimidation for his reporting on the protests and government crackdown, resulting in the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) in Indonesia issuing an alert about his situation today. Mr Mambor’s ability to report – and that of all local journalists in West Papua working with Tabloid Jubi and elsewhere – is fundamentally affected by the blocking of the internet.

Mr Mambor instructed Jennifer Robinson and Indonesian human rights lawyer, Veronica Koman, to make an urgent appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye. The complaint sets out how the internet blocking fundamentally violates the rights of all West Papuans, who are reliant on internet and social media to be able to communicate and organise peaceful demonstrations, but also interferes with the ability of journalists, including Mr Mambor to do their work, including – but not limited to – being unable to communicate generally, each other, with sources and with the international community, difficulties in publishing online stories, and making it almost impossible to verify information circulated on social media, which is the primary means of communication for protesters and indigenous Papuans, and for journalists.

Protests started this week to mark the 50 year anniversary since Indonesia held the ‘Act of Free Choice’ in 1969, when a hand-picked group of 1,022 West Papuans were forced to vote under threat of violence in support of integration with Indonesia, in violation of international law and their right to self-determination. West Papuans have long resisted Indonesian occupation, calling for there to be a proper UN supervised referendum on self-determination. Hundreds of thousands protested across Indonesia this week, shouting ‘Papua Merdeka’ (Free West Papua) and ‘Referendum! Yes!’.

In response, violent police and civilian militia actions have taken place against West Papuans in different parts of Indonesia, including mobs threatening indigenous Papuans, using racial slurs such as calling them monkeys. This has led to even larger protests around the country against racism, fuelling further protests about self-determination and Papuans carrying signs saying “I’m not a monkey”. Remarkable footage came out out on Twitter and Facebook, showing huge protests.

In response, the Indonesian government has deployed 1,000 more troops into West Papua, which is an already heavily-militarised zone. At the same time, they have shut down the internet (official government notice here) to prevent further reporting and online organising by protesters.

Veronica Koman said:

"The Indonesian government is blocking internet access so the world can't see the groundswell of ordinary West Papuans demanding a referendum on self-determination. Human rights defenders are being obstructed from monitoring the situation and verifying reports of abuses."

International media and organisations are banned in West Papua. The West Papuan community relies on social media to be able to communicate and ensure information reaches the international community. Without internet access, West Papuans are cut off from the international community, unable to communicate with each other and organise, and journalists are prevented the ability to report on what is happening. Human rights groups have expressed concern about the risk of widespread human rights abuse by the Indonesian security forces without the accountability of media reporting and citizen journalism on social media.

Jennifer Robinson said:

“We appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur, and to the UN Human Rights Commissioner Michele Bachelet, to raise concern with the Indonesian government about the military crackdown and internet blocking in West Papua, and to call on Indonesia to ensure that Mr Mambor and West Papuan journalists are able to report without fear of intimidation and harassment.”