OPINION: By Michael Andrew of Pacific Media Watch
For the past three weeks a wave of violent protest has been spreading across West Papua and Indonesia.
Sparked by a racist attack on West Papuan students, the protests have featured the burning of government buildings, 6000 troops mobilised, an internet blackout, marauding militias stabbing demonstrators and at least 10 civilian deaths as the Indonesian government attempted to smother the ugly truth of its own colonial legacy.
And yet, despite these egregious human rights abuses on a Pacific people, in a region of immense significance and proximity to New Zealand, the mainstream media has largely ignored the issue.
Apart from state broadcasters TNVZ and RNZ Pacific and a solitary article by the Otago Daily Times, barely a word has been published online about West Papua. None of New Zealand’s three biggest commercial media websites have featured the unrest since it started in mid-August.
Comparatively, the Hong Kong Anti-Extradition demonstrations have been featured on the same websites 20 times in the past three weeks.
The conflict in Kashmir has featured at least 10 times.
West Papua however, much closer to home, is apparently not worth mentioning.
If human suffering is the standard by which society measures the significance of an event, then the developments in West Papua should at the very least be an interesting story.
Why then is the mainstream media so unwilling to touch it?
The question was put to RNZ Pacific journalist Johnny Blades, who told Pacific Media Watch that the current mainstream coverage has not at all reflected the seriousness of the West Papua issue.
“The protests and related unrest, and the response by Indonesian authorities, are signs of a big crisis that countries in our part of the world ought to be concerned about,” he said.
“It has implications for numerous neighbouring countries, and has the potential to destabilise a wider region.”
While the lack of coverage is startling, he acknowledged that the reasons were complicated.
“Media outlets have difficulty accessing information about Papua. Indonesia practically restricts any outside access to Papua but media outlets haven’t seemed interested enough to take up the option of engaging local Papua-based journos to work with them.”
“Perhaps the Papua issue seems too difficult to cover, and media outlets may simply be more interested in sticking with the foreign news they are used to or think will get clicks.”
West Papua itself has been embroiled in intermittent conflict since the 1960s, when Indonesia claimed the land as its province through a widely discredited UN-sanctioned referendum called “The Act of Free Choice”, or derisively referred to as “The Act of No Choice”.
However, the current unrest is unlike anything that has happened before as it has involved a growing group of ethnic Indonesians who are passionately campaigning on behalf of the Papuan cause.
Last week, eight Indonesian activists were arrested in Jakarta on charges of treason or “makar” for either raising the West Papuan flag or engaging in pro-Papua activism. They reportedly remain in prison, forced to listen non-stop to nationalist songs under some type of Orwellian psychological punishment.
But the drama is not at all confined to the Indonesian borders. Last week, police accused prominent Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman of “inciting” unrest by posting about the protest on twitter from overseas. Interpol has reportedly been contacted to help track her down.
In another report, The Coordinating Minister of Politics, Law and Security Issues Wiranto threatened England-based West Papuan Independence leader Benny Wenda, saying that he would personally arrest him if he returned to Indonesia.
Wiranto himself is an ex-army General who despite being found by the UN to have committed war crimes and human rights abuses in East Timor is responsible for managing the unrest in Papua.
Even for the layperson, this saga is madness! Earlier this week, West Papuans reported that masked motorcyclists had tossed a bag of “aggressive” pythons into their dormitory, presumably in retaliation for the protests.
If newsreaders need twists, drama, and absurd irony to keep them engaged then the West Papua story deserves to be shared more.
But even if New Zealanders aren’t necessarily interested in the developments in West Papua or are unaware of its existence or location, shouldn’t it be the media’s job to inform them?
Journalist and editor of Evening Report Selwyn Manning thought so, saying that the mainstream news media was not doing its job to foster public interest in significant events.
“The disinterest is due to the mainstream news media not meeting its fourth estate function, that is to report on issues where conflict, environmental impact, or natural disasters have yet to spark a multilateral intervention.”
But he also said that New Zealanders’ interest in certain events was dictated by government interest and involvement, a factor that in this case would certainly hinder Kiwi’s awareness of West Papua.
“Politically our governments are reticent to get involved in human rights issues occurring within Indonesian-controlled states. It is a geopolitical and diplomatic thing.”
The government certainly appears to be keeping West Papua at an incredibly long arms-length. Apart from the Foreign Ministry saying that it was “deeply concerned” about the violence and had raised the issue with Indonesia, little has been done to actively challenge the human rights violations.
Naturally, the New Zealand government wants to preserve its diplomatic relationship with a valuable and very powerful country of 260 million people with a GDP nearly the size of Australia’s.
However, New Zealand ignoring political or social developments in Indonesia is like an investor ignoring a toxic public feud between a CEO and employees in a profitable company. It’s just bad business.
But even if the government is turning its back on West Papua, the media does not need to follow suit, nor does the public.
In Papua New Guinea, the people are defying their government’s recognition of Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua by marching on mass for the freedom of their fellow islanders.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, political and religious groups and even UN officials are weighing in on the unrest, backing the West Papuan cause or demanding an end to the human rights abuses and for Indonesia to hold those responsible to account.
The New Zealand public can also weigh in on West Papua, but first it needs to know that it is an issue in the first place.
“A lack of understanding about West Papua and exactly where it is remains a factor,” said Johnny Blades
This needs to change. For whatever reasons or whether it is interesting news or not, New Zealanders should be given the opportunity to learn about West Papua and decide for themselves if it’s worth their concern.
The media can make that happen.