President Jokowi lifted an effective ban on foreign journalists reporting from Papua during his visit to the province over the weekend. Aside from being a positive step for press freedom, the move has been interpreted as an effort by Jokowi to boost his own image as a human rights defender and to promote the 'good news' story of increased development efforts in the region.
But will this be the story that foreign journalists find there?
Jokowi's well-timed visit to Papua was an opportunity for him to recover his image as a defender of human rights following the internationally condemned execution of seven foreigners and one Indonesian national on drug charges this month. It also preempted the president's upcoming visit to Papua New Guinea, and a meeting of the Melanesian Spearhead Group that will decide whether West Papua will be granted membership, potentially bolstering calls for independence from Indonesia.
During the weekend visit, Jokowi promised a slate of infrastructure projects, including investments in manufacturing, energy, tourism and communications. He released and greeted five Papuan political prisoners and announced an end to restrictions on foreign journalists reporting from Papua, effective immediately.
Until now, foreign journalists have been restricted in obtaining permits to report from the provinces of Papua and West Papua due to an ongoing low-level insurgency in the region. Those who have gone without permits have faced arrest, as in the case of two French journalists who were arrested while making a documentary on the Papuan separatist movement last year. There is a heavy security force presence in the region, and conflict have been known to arise between security personnel and the local population.
But Jokowi and his government say all this is changing.
Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, has told the press that Indonesia is no longer using a 'security approach' in Papua, and is instead pursuing a 'development approach'. This is the story he expects to see from foreign journalists reporting from Papua. Purdijatno further claimed that stories from foreign journalists about human rights abuses no longer reflected the reality on the ground, and were counterproductive to the region's development. He warned that foreign journalists should not go to Papua with the intention of 'stirring trouble' – 'That's why we are giving them (foreign journalists) conditions that they may report on what they see so that they don't, for example, go looking for false data from armed groups,' he said.
A number of activists in Papua have already condemned what they see as token efforts by the central government to recognise their struggle for civil and political rights, and have rejected Jokowi's request to simply forget about past abuses.
The hope from Jokowi's government seems to be that with increased investment in Papua's development, the impetus for Papuan independence and the conflict sparked by the independence movement will disappear. However, judging by the reaction in Papua so far, there's no guarantee that this will be the story foreign journalists uncover there.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Axel Drainville.