Endy M. Bayuni, Jakarta – The government is going the wrong way in managing the information flow from Papua, which has seen massive protests in several towns these last two weeks. In times of conflict, suppressing information can be counterproductive and even undermine its credibility.
Shutting down the internet connection in both Papua and West Papua provinces is the worst thing it could have done. While the intention is to stop the spread of fake news, it has made the flow of information, and hence verification of the claims and counterclaims, that much more difficult. Truth became one of the first casualties.
The official version of Wednesday's clash in the remote highland town of Deiyai in West Papua contrasts with the accounts given by Reuters, suarapapua.com, The Jakarta Post, Al Jazeera and tirto.id. The news outlets reported between four and seven civilian deaths caused by live rounds, citing hospital workers and priests.
The Indonesian Military (TNI) and the National Police initially said there was one death – a TNI soldier – and six police officers injured as protesters rained arrows down on them. They denied any civilian casualties and on its Twitter account the TNI even branded the Reuters story a hoax.
Police later admitted to three civilian deaths, but insisted they were killed when they tried to seize weapons from security officers. Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Wiranto claimed at a press conference that security officers were under strict orders not to open fire.
The government has not learned anything from the way it botched the media campaign in East Timor (now independent Timor Leste) in the 1990s.
With the media facing severe restrictions, the Armed Forces (ABRI) engaged in a propaganda war against proindependence forces through their overseas networks and the media struggled to get independent verification on the ground.
There was no doubt who won the propaganda war. Indonesia rapidly lost international support and nearly 80 percent of East Timorese voted for independence when given the chance in the referendum on self-determination in August 1999.
The hard lesson is that when you try to control and manipulate information you lose credibility and when you lost the propaganda war, you lost East Timor.
Was there ever a chance that Indonesia could have won the referendum? That's an academic question. However, if we disregard the human rights abuses by the ABRI, Indonesia did everything it could to win hearts and minds across the former Portuguese colony.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has invested heavily in Papua since 2014. The trans-Papua highway represents his signature policy of bringing development and hence prosperity to the people, who still count among the poorest in Indonesia. He has visited Papua at least 11 times in the last five years and in the April election he won more than 90 percent of the vote.
The government faces low-intensity warfare in Papua from armed guerilla groups conducting hit-and-run attacks from their jungle hideouts. It has accused the Free Papua Movement (OPM) for turning peaceful protests in Papua these last two weeks into violent ones.
Papuans were protesting against racism and discrimination, but some of the demonstrations became a platform to demand a self-determination referendum, with protestors waving the Bintang Kejora (Morning Star) flag, the rallying symbol of a free Papua.
Covering Papua is already difficult as it is for any media outlet given its large and sparsely populated territory. Foreign journalists need a special permit to visit the region, but even for Jakarta-based media, which have reporters on the ground and unlimited access, getting stories can be difficult.
The media have to rely on local sources, including journalists, churches and hospitals that may have different accounts than those of the government. The internet shutdown has made their job much more difficult, although the telephone lines still work.
However, any attempt by the government to control the flow of information, as the lessons of East Timor taught, will backfire.
Restrictions on media operations could lead to the impression the government is hiding something. This not only undermines its credibility, but also lends credence to the OPM's claims that gross human rights violations, including genocide, were taking place.
This is not the first time that the government has shut down internet services in response to a security crisis. During the Jakarta riots in May, it blocked images and video clips posted on social media to stop the spread of fake news. Why should Papua be treated differently than Jakarta?
The government may claim to have stopped many hoaxes about what is happening in Papua from going viral, but it has also blocked credible information, good and bad, that needs to come out of Papua.
A more open media policy in Papua will not only help restore government credibility, it can even help restrain security officers who are on strict orders not to open fire and dispel claims of human rights violations.
Send the media policy back to the drawing board, or lose the Papua campaign.