Internet Blackout in Indonesia’s Papua Hampers Media Reporting on Conflict, Activists Say

Tria Dianti and Ronna Nirmala
Internet Blackout in Indonesia’s Papua Hampers Media Reporting on Conflict, Activists Say Indonesian troops carry the caskets of two soldiers killed in an attack blamed on Papuan rebels, at the Goliat Dekai Airport in Yahukimo regency, May 19, 2021.

The capital of Papua province and surrounding areas have been without internet for a month, complicating the media’s efforts to report on the armed conflict in Indonesia's easternmost region that has escalated sharply during the same period, press freedom advocates say.

The blackout – due to the accidental cutting of a seabed cable, according to the government – began April 30, days after separatist insurgents killed an army general and President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo ordered security forces to step up efforts to eradicate the armed groups, in response.

As part of the crackdown, the government declared the separatist rebels a terrorist group, raising alarm among rights activists who said the classification could lead to human rights abuses and endanger civil society.

Damar Juniarto, executive director of the Southeast Asian Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet), urged the government and the state-owned internet service provider Telekomunikasi Indonesia (Telkom) to be transparent about the blackout that affected 500,000 people, including media personnel.

“The obstruction of the journalists’ work has a direct impact on the fulfillment of information to the public. They also have difficulty accessing and sending news to the editorial staff,” Damar told BenarNews.

“Some journalists have been forced to send news to editors using short messages (SMS). Even then, the transmission is not smooth. Journalists cannot verify information quickly.”

Violence related to the separatist insurgency in Papua mostly takes place in remote mountainous regions of the province, but Jayapura and surrounding regencies – home to half a million people – are the hub of media, commerce, local government and connectivity to the rest of the province.

Telekomunikasi Indonesia said internet service would be restored in June, and blamed the complexity of the repairs and bureaucratic red tape for the delay in fixing the broken cable.

“For the repair of the broken cable, a special ship and a team of experts have been dispatched from Makassar to Jayapura on May 19,” Pujo told BenarNews.

Specialized equipment was necessary because the cables are at a depth of about 4,000 meters (13,100 feet), he said. Various permits also had to be processed, including an Underwater Work Order (SPKBA) issued by the Ministry of Transportation, along with security clearances before the ship could set sail.

As the internet blackout nears one month, residents voiced their frustrations.

“For [those of] us who make a living selling things online, no internet means no business,” Muhammad Fadli, 33, a Sarmi regency resident who sells cosmetics and clothing, told BenarNews.

As it is, people’s daily activities have been upended during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Editha Nunun Aryani, 43, a Jayapura resident.

“It’s difficult because children are having exams and this prevents them from accessing school assignments online,” she told BenarNews.

“Now they are desperate for internet access and some have been forced to fly to Timika, Merauke, and Biak for exams,” she said, referring to some areas in Indonesian Western New Guinea that have internet access.

Security chiefs’ visit

Meanwhile, military commander Air Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto and national police chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo visited Papua on Wednesday– their second trip to the region this month that, they said, was intended to “boost the troops’ morale.”

“The government is committed to developing Papua, including its infrastructure. It is true that what the government has done has not been fully felt by all Papuan people,” Sigit said in a statement.

In the latest clash between security forces and separatist groups, two soldiers were stabbed and killed by suspected rebels in Yahukimo regency on May 18, military spokesman Col. Gusti Nyoman Suriastawa said.

The Free Papua Movement (OPM) rebels claimed responsibility for the killings, saying they retaliated for recent attacks by security forces on homes in Puncak regency.

In addition, the National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB), the armed wing of the OPM, accused government forces of attacking civilians in the town of Ilaga.

“We observe that all Indonesian colonial military units … are still carrying out operations in villages,” TPNPB spokesman Sebby Sambom said in a statement.

“Is their true intention to kill civilians?”

On Monday, the military sent 400 personnel from an infantry battalion in West Java to Papua for a nine-month tour of duty to provide security in vulnerable areas, regional military chief Brig. Gen. Achmad Fauzi said.

Fauzi said they would replace a similar number of troops who had completed their tour.

“We will carry out a humanitarian work for the Papuan people, such as renovating churches there. Many people are affected and we provide trauma-healing programs,” Fauzi said.

Military spokesman Col. Djawara Whimbo said the government had no plans to send additional troops to Papua.

“There has been no order for additional personnel. Soldiers are there to help the police,” Whimbo told BenarNews, adding that there were 7,000 military personnel in Papua.

The mainly Melanesian Papua region, which comprises Papua and West Papua provinces, was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-administered ballot called a sham by many Papuans and rights groups.

But Mohammad Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said 92 percent of Papuans supported Jakarta’s rule and the armed faction accounted for a small fraction of those who are pro-independence.

“Armed criminal groups are the smallest and they are being dealt with by law enforcement based on Law Number 5 on terrorism,” he told a group of academics on Thursday.


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