Friday, March 09, 2007

Mellish: Why it’s all quiet on the West Papua front

Morgan Mellish, a journalist representing the Australian Financial Review in Jakarta, Indonesia, perished when Garduda Indonesia flight GA-200 burst into flames when it crashed on landing in Yogyakarta on 7 March. Mellish was a member of the Jakarta Foreign Corresponents Club and regularly contributed to its newsletter. The following is from its December 2006 edition.

JFCC Jalan-Jalan is a newsletter feature chronicling the highs and lows of correspondents' experiences following the Indonesian story. Submissions are welcome. In this edition, Australian Financial Review correspondent Morgan Mellish drops a dime on the stranglehold of official "security" that obstructs foreign journos reporting legally from Papua:

In September, Australian television journalist Naomi Robson created headlines in that country when she and her crew were booted out of West Papua without getting beyond Jayapura. Robson's attempted journey inside the restive Indonesian province highlighted the difficulties of reporting from this tightly-controlled police state.

Within days of the Channel 7 crew being unceremoniously ejected, three other Australian journalists managed to travel inside West Papua and all encountered official interference and intimidation.

The three - myself, the ABC's Jakarta correspondent Geoff Thompson and The Australian's Jakarta correspondent Stephen Fitzpatrick came away with exactly the same conclusion: If this is how the Indonesian security forces treat the western pres, then pity the poor Papuans.

Unlike Robson and her crew, who entered the desperately poor province on tourist visas, the three of us had "surat jalans".These are the official government travel permits needed to legally enter West Papua, which is one of the most militarized areas in Indonesia.

But this didn't stop the overzealous and at-time thuggish secret police from trying to stop us reporting at almost every turn. There may be some goodwill in Jakarta towards solving West Papua's problems, but it's clear the security forces on the ground remain a law unto themselves.

The difficulties for western journalists start well before you arrive in Papua. To get a surat jalan requires the approval of Indonesia's Department of Foreign Affairs (Deplu), the State Intelligence Body (BIN and the Indonesian police.

Our permits were among only a handful approved this year and took about six months to get. The vast majority of applicants are knocked back by DEPLU on the trumped-up grounds that the country's easternmost province is too dangerous for journalists. The Sydney Morning Herald/Age Jakarta correspondent Mark Forbes went into West Papua with a surat jalan in March.

Each surat jalan specifies where you can travel and what you can report on. Mine said Jayapura, Timika and Wamena and that I could only report on the investment climate. The Australian's and the ABC's said they could only report on an Asmat tribe arts festival.

Upon arriving in Jayapura, the provincial capital, all westerners must register with the police. I, along with my assistant, went to police headquarters to register with deputy director of police intelligence, Yan Pieter.

After grilling us on our intentions, he casually took a picture of us with his late-model Nokia flip phone. He then showed us a picture on the phone of Fitzpatrick, who'd been in the office a few days earlier.

"Stephen was very bad and was deported [from the province] for covering politics," he said, maintaining a friendly demeanor. "Now, you won't do anything like that, will you?"

While in West Papua, all three of us were tailed by plainclothes secret police known as "intels"and threatened for attempting to interview human rights activists and Papuan community leaders. Thompson's ABC crew got the worst treatment.

They filmed a pro-independence ceremony just outside Jayapura and were later detained and shouted at during a one-hour interrogation. Later, In Timika location of the massive Freeport-McMoRan mine and much of the province's unrest - Thompson's ABC crew were again harassed and detained for a total of five hours. The intels demanded to see and then copied all of their footage. A local ABC employee was interrogated separately behind closed doors and asked to sign a written statement cataloguing the ABC's activities in Papua.

In the end, the ABC sought help from Australian embassy consular staff who spoke via phone to the intels. This, according to Thompson, related the level of scrutiny. However, the intels said because the Asmat tribe arts festival wasn't in Timika and wasn't on for another week, there was nothing for the ABC to do in Papua.

Meanwhile in Jayapura, Fitzpatrick was told to go to police intelligence headquarters or officers would come and get him. Police intelligence's Yan Pieter demanded to see his notebook which Fitzpatrick showed, knowing his hurried longhand would be illegible.

After this, Fitzpatrick started receiving strange phone calls. This included a text message attempted "sting" by an intel who pretended to be an independence activist and offered to meet him.

When I arrived in Timika, I received similar treatment. I was having lunch with two Freeport employees when an intel marched in and aggressively demanded to know who we'd talked to and to see our notes.

To try and resolve the tension, my assistant offered to photocopy several pages of notes from a press conference with the Papuan Governor. We then explained that I didn't take notes because I simply remembered everything. A Freeport employee later apologized and said the company had little control over the intels.

We then returned to Jayapura and, by keeping a low profile, managed to interview two jailed activists inside Jayapura prison who'd been tortured and then get out of the province without the intels realizing.

The worrying thing is the treatment of local journalists is a lot worse. On top of intimidation and threats, they are often physically assaulted. Cunding Levi, a Jayapura-based stringer for national magazine Tempo, says he is often harassed when covering sensitive stories.

"I was taking pictures of police hitting a demonstrator during the Abepura incident,"he says, referring to a riot in March in which five Indonesian security personnel were killed. "Police hit me on the back with a rattan cane and told me not to take that picture, but take a picture of the demonstrators killing their colleague."

Journalist Tjah Jono from radio KBR 68H in Timika says: "We don't have access to information from public institutions. No journalist has ever got the official data on the local budget. It makes it difficult to reveal corruption or abuse of power."

"Freeport also closes all access to information. If there is an incident in the Freeport concession area, we can't enter. A Freeport communications officer will usually give us information, but we don't believe them."

The debate about whether Papua should be independent is for another time and place. But given the way journalists are treated and the allegations of ongoing human rights abuses, it's easy to conclude many Papuans still live in a climate of fear.

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