Fresh hope that Indonesia would allow western journalists and observers freely into its most troubled province, West Papua, appear to be unfounded because the central government has not changed its restrictive stance.
The governor of Papua province, Lukas Enembe, said on Wednesday that he wanted to welcome reporters and non-government organisations to the area.
“There’s nothing that needs to be covered up. That would only raise questions. They can see the development we have made and inform others that Papua is a safe place,” he said, as quoted by the Jakarta Globe newspaper.
His promise was immediately seized upon by Australian Greens Senator Richard Di Natale, part of the Parliamentary Friends of West Papua group.
He said he had been planning to visit the area anyway, and, in the wake of the Governor’s comments he would “invite a delegation of journalists and human rights representatives to join me on the trip”.
But the hope for fresh openness was quickly squashed by the central government in Jakarta, which still requires journalists to apply for special permits to go to the province, and to take secret police officers with them of they are approved.
Journalists must apply to the Indonesian department of foreign affairs for special permission to travel, giving all information about who they will interview, when and where.
Their application is then considered on a Thursday evening in what’s called the “Clearing House” meeting involving 18 different Indonesian government departments, including police and military forces.
Many applications for travel features to the Raja Ampat diving site are approved, but most applications for serious reportage are rejected.
Fairfax Media has confirmed with the Indonesian department of foreign affairs that nothing has changed, despite Mr Lukas’s comments, and the “clearing house” process remains the only legal route to Papua.
Journalists who travel without permission face being put on a black-list banning them from future visits to Indonesia, and western correspondents who are resident in Indonesia confront the possibility that their immigration status may be revoked.
Even the International Committee for the Red Cross has been banned from the province.
Mr Lukas does not have the power to overturn the policy of the central government. His province is represented at the clearing house meeting by the Home Affairs ministry.
However, the comments by Mr Lukas, who was elected in April, could be construed as a welcome change of tone: “Please, come to Papua, it’s open for everyone”, he said.
And Ruben Magai the head of Commission A, which is responsible for mass media, at the Papuan parliament also urged the central government to ease up on the process, saying: “If security is the reason I don’t think Papua is in some kind of war state or something like that nowadays.”
But western journalists have been assured on numerous occasions in the past that permission to travel will be forthcoming, and those promises have, in the past, turned out to be largely false.
Indonesian security forces have been involved in a low-level conflict with Papuan separatist organisations since the area was annexed into Indonesia in 1969 in a vote widely seen as a shame by international monitors.
Disclosure: Michael Bachelard applied and was one of the few to receive permission to travel to West Papua in January 2013. He produced this story and this story.
- Sydney Morning Herald