Indonesia blocks internet in West Papua as protest rages

Indonesia’s information ministry says ‘temporary’ shutdown is meant ‘to accelerate government effort to restore order’.

A protester carries the banned Papuan flag as he meets an Indonesian soldier in the city of Fakfak on August 21, 2019. - Indonesia''s Papua was hit by fresh unrest on August 21 as more than 1,000 secur
A protester carries the banned 'morning star' Papuan flag as he faces an Indonesian soldier in the city of Fakfak [Str/AFP]

Jakarta, Indonesia – Indonesia has blocked internet access in West Papua, a move that followed the government deployment of additional military and police personnel to the region to help to quell ongoing protests and secure vital public facilities.

News of the internet shutdown comes as angry demonstrations continue to break out on Thursday in West Papua province’s city of Sorong and the Fakfak regency, according to Al Jazeera sources.

A number of protesters have also started to gather in the capital, Jakarta. 

Indonesia’s security minister, Wiranto, and the country’s police chief, General Tito Karnavian are heading to the West Papua region – which comprises West Papua and Papua provinces – on Thursday to oversee the government’s security operation, according to reports.

Indonesia’s information ministry said the decision to “temporarily block” internet communication starting on Wednesday is meant “to accelerate the process of restoring the security and order situation in Papua and the surrounding areas”.

The order will stand “until the situation in Papua returned to being conducive and normal,” according to the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology’s official website.

Information Minister Rudiantara confirmed the shutdown in a message to Al Jazeera on Thursday.

“It is only data,” he said, adding that people “can still make and receive calls, and send and receive text messages”.

Earlier, Rudiantara told Al Jazeera that authorities had “throttled” the internet in West Papua “to filter information and prevent the spread of rumours during the protests”.

State-owned Antara news agency reported late on Wednesday that police officers have arrested at least 34 people in Timika, a regency in Papua province.

Timika protests - Indonesia
Antara reported on Wednesday that police officers have arrested at least 34 protesters in Timika [Stringer/EFE/EPA]

Disruption to information

Reaction to the internet shutdown was swift on social media.

The Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet) is using the hashtag “keep it on” to press the government to lift the internet ban.

Damar Juniarto, executive director of SAFEnet, told Al Jazeera the Indonesian government could be violating the country’s own laws.

“It is preventing people from doing their jobs. This is a backward step in a democracy and a serious violation,” he said.

Yan Warinussy, a West Papuan living in the province’s capital Manokwari, confirmed to Al Jazeera he can only access the internet through a private wi-fi service.

Journalists in West Papua told Al Jazeera they have encountered difficulty in transmitting news from Sorong, Fakfak and remote parts of the region.

“There was a big event when the military and police officers tried to negotiate with the demonstrators, but on the way … West Papuan threw rocks at them. One of the police officers was injured,” said Arnold Kapisa from Tabloid Jubi, a leading newspaper in the region.

“We cannot get any photo and video right away and report to our office.”

Angela Flassy, chief editor of Tabloid Jubi, told Al Jazeera by phone that since Monday, internet in Papua province’s capital Jayapura has been blocked.

“We are having a difficult time to coordinate, to find news, to send articles, and verify any news from the ground,” she added.

Journalists in the region now rely on private wi-fi networks, which are more expensive.

Veronica Koman, a human rights lawyer who focuses on West Papua issues, told Al Jazeera her team is lodging a complaint about the internet blockade with the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression.

The protests

The ongoing protests in West Papua region first erupted last week after Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java, reportedly faced mistreatment by police and were subjected to racial abuse.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who won 78 percent of the votes in the region during the recent presidential election, has sought to ease tensions by appealing to all Indonesians to forgive.

Despite its natural wealth, West Papua remains the poorest region in Indonesia. The world’s largest gold mine, owned by the US company Freeport McMoran, is located in West Papua.

West Papua region shares the Papua group of islands with the independent state of Papua New Guinea.

It was a Dutch colony until the early 1960s when Indonesia took it over; becoming part of the country in a controversial 1969 referendum, where only some 1,000 people were allowed to vote on behalf of 800,000 other Papuans.

Since then, a pro-independence movement has been rumbling in the region, using the “morning star” flag as their symbol of resistance.

Source: Al Jazeera