A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil, Jakarta – Journalists are caught in a maelstrom of proliferating false information on social media and threats to their own safety and their work, showing that freedom of the press remains precarious, especially in the region of Papua, observers say.
Alliance of Independent Journalist (AJI) chairman Sasmito Madrim noted that press freedom in Indonesia had declined again this year, citing the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index that ranked Indonesia 117 out of 180 countries surveyed in 2022, down from 113 in the previous year.
The country was ranked 119 in 2020 and 124 in 2019. He said that press freedom rankings such as the RSF used several indicators ranging from politics to the security of journalists, the latter of which was also found to be lacking, with the AJI recording 43 cases of violence against journalists in 2021. "These cases range from terror and intimidation to digital attacks against journalists.
And if we look at the cases based on the perpetrators, the police are often the dominant offenders," Sasmito said during a webinar discussion hosted by the United States cultural center @america in Jakarta on Wednesday.
He also said the trend had shifted from physical to digital-based attacks, such as hacking, doxing and attacks on media websites, while the 2008 Electronic Information and Transaction Law was sometimes used to criminalize critics including journalists.
Sasmito said press freedom was even more uncertain in the region of Papua, especially as foreign journalists were required to obtain travel permits from the government to enter the region. He pointed out that of the 69 requests by foreign journalists between 2016-2020, 14 of them were denied by the Indonesian government with the most cases in 2019 when nine requests were denied.
He also noted that in August 2019 the government briefly restricted the internet in Papua under the pretext of security as Papuans across the region held anti-racism protests. Although the government said the restriction was intended to stop the spread of hoaxes and prevent further violence, it actually resulted in the reverse. "It hindered the work of journalists.
The public could not access information and news [online], resulting in people believing information spread orally that may not have been trusted and had not been verified," Sasmito said.
Pressure from within
Meanwhile, Muhammadiyah University of Papua journalism lecturer Nahria said that although freedom of the press should be guaranteed to ensure people's right to expression, in practice, and especially in Papua, it was not the reality.
She explained that while violence against journalists by law enforcement remained a major problem, there were also issues with freedom of the press within local newsrooms as sometimes information gathered by journalists in the field was self-censored within the newsroom. "This usually happens with journalists that work for the national media [based in Jakarta]. Their newsrooms understand issues are important in Papua but decide not to run them as news for certain reasons," Nahria said.
The local media industry has also been hindered, as local media platforms are dependent on advertising revenue from regional administrations with very few advertisers from private companies. "Regional administrations who advertise would protest any news that they deemed to be negative," Nahria said Repression report The US' 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Indonesia stated that "there were numerous reports of the law being used to limit political criticism of the government."
The report noted that while independent Indonesian media was active with a wide variety of views, the government sometimes used laws such as those on blasphemy, hate speech, defamation, false information and separatism to restrict media.
It also underlined that foreign journalists must obtain permits to travel to Papua and West Papua despite the law and constitution protecting journalists from interference while doing their job. In March, human rights group Amnesty International Indonesia warned that the heightened military presence in Papua's Intan Jaya regency in the past few years had come with increasing violence, including unlawful killings, in the region.
The rights group reported that incidences of military violence in Intan Jaya regency, Papua, had risen over the past couple of years amid the government's push to open the lucrative Wabu Block gold mine in the region.
Amnesty reported that the regency had become a hotspot for human rights violations and conflict, particularly since military outposts had multiplied in the area, from two in 2019 to 17 outposts in 2022.