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Indonesia Says Internet Access Block to Stay Until Calm Returns to Papua

A man looks at damaged vehicles in front of Indonesia's Customs and Excise Office after a riot in Jayapura, Papua, Indonesia, Aug. 30, 2019, in this photo taken by Antara Foto.

VOA's Yuni Salim contributed to this report.

Indonesia's Ministry of Communication and Information Technology said Friday that it would continue to block telecommunication services in Papua and West Papua, in an effort, it said, to restore security in the wake of civil unrest that flared in several cities over allegedly racist attacks on Papuan students.

Acting ministry spokesman Ferdinandus Setu said in a news release that the restrictions on telecommunication services were implemented Aug. 22 to speed the process of restoring order in Papua and other areas. The ministry said the block would remain until calm returned to Papua.

Henri Subiakto, senior adviser to the communication and information technology minister, told VOA separately that there was no timeline for restoring service.

"The other day what triggered the unrest was videos and photos. We slowed it [internet service] down so that photo and video sharing was not possible but people could still communicate," Subiakto said.

He added that the decision to slow down the internet and other policies was based on Article 40 of the Information and Electronic Transaction Law.

According to Article 40, "It is mandatory for the government to prevent the spread and the use of Electronic Information and/or Electronic Documents which have contents prohibited as stated by law."

Riot police fire tear gas during a protest in Jayapura, Papua, Indonesia, Aug. 29, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.
Riot police fire tear gas during a protest in Jayapura, Papua, Indonesia, Aug. 29, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.

Protest origins

Protests began in mid-August after it was reported that Indonesian police in the region had been saying and committing "racist acts" against Papuan college students. Protesters occupied several student dormitories, and street demonstrations spread across the region.

VOA has reported that demonstrations continued into this week. However, because of the telecommunications blackout, VOA was unable to verify whether there had been casualties.

The government's decision to shut down the internet has not only caused an information blackout but also has drawn attention to the potential for human rights abuses in Indonesia's restive easternmost provinces.

"Embarrassing things are going on, and the instinct is to keep the outside out from mucking in and learning of them, rather than to remedy the situation," John Miller of the East Timor Action Network told VOA. "So Indonesia can be seen as it likes to portray itself — as a reformed nation that now acknowledges and defends human rights."

Other critics

Other human rights groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Indonesian LBH Pers Foundation, have also criticized the measure.

Director of LBH Pers Ade Wahyudin said the policy could cut off access for human rights activists and journalists to monitor conditions in Papua.

Further, Wahyudin said, the legal basis used for enforcing the internet block was inaccurate.

Earlier in the week, the Communication Ministry contended that Veronica Koman, a human rights lawyer, was behind a phony news story regarding Surabaya police. Wahyudin said Koman could potentially sue the ministry for defaming her and spreading fake news by making false claims about her.

Koman told VOA she was demanding a public apology.

"I have checked on the ministry's web page and it hasn't been corrected," she said. "This is disinformation on the ministry's part. It has defamed and damaged my credibility, including the information that I have published."

Koman said she was open to the possibility of taking legal action if the ministry did not publicly apologize soon.

The free-speech advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranks Indonesia 124th out of 180 nations surveyed in terms of press freedom. The group specifically cites growing violence against reporters in West Papua, among other abuses.