2 Jun 2021

West Papua communications blind spot amid ongoing conflict

1:45 pm on 2 June 2021

Continuing telecommunications outages in Indonesia's Papua region have created a media blind spot by blocking the flow of information about ongoing conflict in its central highlands.

Jayapura, Papua

Jayapura, Papua. Photo: Supplied

The communications disruptions add to pressures on basic freedoms of expression at a time Papuans are trying to voice opinions about Jakarta's plans for the region's special autonomy provisions. And a Papua-based academic warns they could stifle the flow of news about fighting, troop movements, and could allow human rights violations to continue.

The internet to much of Papua was cut a month ago after a reported cable problem. At the time, a spokesperson for PT Telkom Indonesia apologised for the disruption, and said the company was working to restore services.

However, through intermittent phone contact with the remote region, RNZ Pacific has learnt the problems have not been rectified, and those communications still standing are being monitored closely.

"The situation now is like this: now the internet connection, but also the phone connection - it's very slow," said Esther Haluk, a Papuan academic and lecturer based in Jayapura.

"Sometimes we cannot make a phone call, sometimes we lost connection. It is really hard to get in touch with some friends. For example in conflict area like Ilaga or in Intan Jaya, everything is being monitored.

"The local people they want to have connection to communicate the real situation in the area, it's really hard because the phone connection."

Ilaga and Intan Jaya are areas of Papua's central highlands region where Indonesian security forces are engaged in a protracted campaign to hunt down guerillas fighting with the pro-independence West Papua Liberation Army.

Over the last two years increased attacks on security forces and even civilians by the guerilla force has prompted a significant troop deployment by Indonesia, whose military far outnumbers the Liberation Army.

The death toll from the resulting armed conflict is unclear, but the fighting has displaced thousands of Papuan villagers in a growing humanitarian crisis that draws little media attention.

"I've got phone calls from Ilaga, but any time a local people want to make a phone connection, everyone who has got an Android phone is being monitored closely," Haluk said.

"So the really localised news is not coming out from the conflict area."

Arrival of more Indonesian troops in Jayapura, Papua, March 2021

Arrival of more Indonesian troops in Jayapura, Papua, March 2021 Photo: Supplied

It's not the first time internet services to the Papua region have been cut at a time of conflict or unrest.

In 2019, the government shut down internet service in the region during weeks of anti-racism protests and deadly unrest. An Indonesian court subsequently ruled the government violated the law by doing so.

Over recent weeks Haluk and other Jayapura locals have seen more signs of the Indonesian troop build-up, with military units arriving in the Papuan capital en route to the highlands, and they know that conflict in the interior is serious.

But the internet outage and telecommunications monitoring made it hard to verify the sporadic reports of deaths and damage to villages in the highlands, Haluk said.

"The situation is really dangerous, and the problem of human rights abuse can increase because of that, because we cannot update the real situation, and it's dangerous for the local people - not only for the people in conflict area, but also most of Papuans and also the activists.

"We need international intervention, because many troops are being sent to Papua."

Indonesian police come out in force to disband to disband a West Papuan student demonstration against Special Autonomy in Papua. Waena, 27 October, 2020

Indonesian police come out in force to disband to disband a West Papuan student demonstration against Special Autonomy in Papua. Waena, 27 October, 2020 Photo: Supplied

Meanwhile, Haluk said Papuans were still facing pressure not to discuss their opposition to the Indonesian government's plans to extend Special Autonomy status in Papua this year.

"It is not allowed to have a peaceful demonstration or express opinions," she said.

"So the situation is not good, because when people's voice is being suppressed... there are many things that they want to say or protest, like the reasons why we refuses special autonomy, for example."

She warned that with ongoing disruption to communications, and the inability to stay connected locally and internationally, West Papua becomes more of a blind spot, and human rights violations are allowed to persist.

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