Press Freedom in Indonesia?

Press Freedom in Indonesia?

Press freedom in Papua, Indonesia, appears to be increasing. But do the recent changes at national level indeed guarantee more freedom of the press in the regions?

“Foreign journalists, as of today, are allowed to enter Papua as freely as they can enter other provinces”, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, alias ‘Jokowi’, said during his visit to Papua on 10 May 2015. He thereby fulfilled a promise he made during his presidential campaign in June 2014. Foreign journalists no longer have to request special permission from the Foreign Ministry to report on Papua as had been required for decades. But to what extent will this effectively influence press freedom in Papua?

The press in Papua has been under serious pressure for many years. Indonesian and international journalists have been controlled and occasionally confronted with abuses by Indonesian security forces. In 2010, Ardiansyah Matrais, a journalist, was found death in the river in Merauke, Papua, after he had reported on excessive exploitation over natural resources in Papua. The case remains unresolved. Viva journalist Banjir Ambarita was stabbed by two unknown men after reporting on two alleged rape cases involving the police in Papua. These are only a few of the cases that fueled resentment among Papuans.

But Jokowi’s decision appears to have been particularly influenced by international pressure. In 2014, two French journalists, Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat, were prosecuted for allegedly filming members of the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM). This case led to an international campaign against restrictions on press freedom in Papua. Journalists organised strikes on World Press Freedom Day, 3rd May 2015, in at least 20 cities worldwide, and were supported by numerous human rights organisations.

The most serious problem for press freedom –not merely in Papua, but throughout Indonesia- is related to the legal protection system and impunity for those who breach press freedom. Although the country has ratified almost all international instruments of human rights, and since 1999 press freedom has been formally guaranteed by the Press Law, the legal protection of journalists remains weak. The transition from Suharto’s authoritarian New Order to a democratic regime initially led to a truly free press. But gradually new limitations appeared.

Indonesia’s current legal system has many criminal provisions that can be used against the press. Several of them have indeed been used to ‘discipline’ newspapers, including legislation on hate speech, insult, spreading false news, and violating public decency. Moreover, the Press Council considered the court system as an intimidation mechanism rather than offering protection to journalists.

Compared to the New Order's authoritarian Suharto regime, violence against journalists has become more ‘localised’ and ‘privatised’. It is no longer primarily the national government that constrains the press. As a result of decentralisation of political power, predatory elites at local level have increasingly been able to pressure journalists.

Whereas after decentralisation in most parts of Indonesia private parties are putting pressure on the press, in Papua the national government continues to play a controversial role. In a contradictory statement, the Military Chief of Information Centre, Major General M. Fuad Basya, said that Jokowi's statement does not automatically guarantee access to Papua for foreign journalist. They should instead obtain a permit from the 'Security House' that is part of the 'Clearing House' to control journalists. It remains to be seen whether Jokowi will be able control the threats to press freedom coming from state actors.

The situation in Indonesia teaches us that a more democratic government structure and improvements in the legal structure do not automatically lead to a better protection of human rights such as the freedom of the press. When assessing the impact of legal and institutional changes, one always needs to be aware of practices in the field.

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Al Tan


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