Digital rights violations in Papua

“Why was our Internet connection shut down? (edited)” Screengrab from the video “The Internet Shutdown in Papua” by West Papuan Updates, used with permission.

On April 30, 2021, parts of Papua were cut off from the internet amid a long-standing dispute between Papua and the Indonesian government that continues to intensify. In a statement, the Indonesian Ministry of Communication and Informatics said the disruption was due to broken submarine cables in the Sulawesi Maluku Papua Cable System. As of writing, the internet in four areas in Papua has been restored since 8 June. Based on national news, the 4G mobile connection is back to normal while fixed broadband remains unstable in the town and district of Jayapura, and the districts of Keerom and Sarmi.

The shutdown period has had a far-reaching effect on the lives and livelihoods of locals. Many Jayapurans fled out to cities nearby such as Nabire, Manokwari, Sorong, and even to Manado and Makassar as “digital refugees”. This event, along with the uncertainty over the region’s special autonomy status and the wider-reaching internet shutdown in 2019, necessitates staying vigilant against similar digital rights violations going forward.

What digital rights were violated in Papua?

The internet has been shut down in Papua multiple times in the past two years. Aside from internet throttling during the 2019 uprising, internet access was also disrupted four times in 2020.

According to CIVICUS, here are other digital rights violations in Papua:

  1. Systematic crackdown: surveillance and digital attacks result in arbitrary arrests.
  2. Dis/misinformation campaigns using bots to skew narratives: According to a BBC investigation, in 2019, the Indonesian government used bots to skew international views of Papua. Tactics included “hashtag hijacking”, where bots jump on hashtags used by opposing groups to highlight negative stories, only to flood the same hashtags with positive stories instead. This is particularly concerning when the Indonesian government has been quick to designate the groups who oppose their Papua policies as “armed groups”, or even label them as terrorists. Such dangerous labels can be (and have been) used to justify increased human rights violations against Papuans.

The above violations also go against Indonesian law on public information openness, which states that “information is a basic individual need for the development of personal and social environment, and is an important part of national resilience”. The law also states that the “right to obtain information is a human right and public information openness is an essential characteristic of a democratic state that upholds the sovereignty of the people to constitute good governance”.

Who spoke up about human rights violations in Papua?

Numerous Indonesian civil society organisations have condemned the Indonesian government’s policies in Papua. SAFEnet, LBH Pers, and Aliansi Jurnalis Independen published a joint press release on the current internet shutdown. In 2018, Amnesty International Indonesia published a report on killings and impunity in Papua and recorded 19 suspected killings by the Indonesian military in 2020.

Foreign NGOs that focus on Indonesia and/or human rights have also issued statements against the violations:

  1. Human Rights Watch urged the Indonesian government to drop treason charges against all activists.
  2. CIVICUS reported on the risks faced by activists from Papua and documented 116 cases of compromised social media accounts, intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests, and attacks against human rights defenders between January and October 2020.
  3. TAPOL criticised the government’s decision to designate the Free Papua Organisation as a terrorist group, as well as their decision to extend the special autonomy policy.
  4. The United Nations Human Rights Council released a statement regarding the violence escalation in the area and urgently requested for a meaningful and inclusive dialogue to address long-standing grievances. However, they remain disinclined to take firm actions against the Indonesian government.

What can we do about it?

The situation continues to develop daily, despite information coming from Papua being scarce. However, there are various ways to help:

    • Stay informed. Find your information from non-mainstream, reliable media outlets, such as Jubi, national news outlets, such as Tirto, Asumsi, Kumparan, Tempo, Jakarta Post, and international news outlets such as The Guardian, BBC, as well as academic journals, such as New Mandala and The Conversation.
    • Do your research on the history of Papuan integration and ensure that your information comes from reliable sources that represent Papuan perspectives.
    • EngageMedia is working with Tunnel Bear to support digital rights defenders in staying safe online by sharing free premium VPN accounts. Should you know any individuals in need, please share or visit this page.
    • Join campaigns online that support the digital rights and safety of Papuans.

Current State of the internet in Papua

As of 18 June, the internet in four areas in Papua has been restored since 8 June. Based on national news, the 4G mobile connection is back to normal, while fixed broadband remains unstable. Due to the internet shutdown, many Jayapurans fled out to cities nearby such as Nabire, Manokwari, Sorong, and even to Manado and Makassar as ‘digital refugees’.

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