West Papua and other critical issues – why is NZ media glossing over them?

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Indonesian security forces intimidate Papuans
Indonesian security forces intimidate Papuans at an unknown location this week during the current crackdown. Image: FB/Manuel Metemko

COMMENT: By David Robie in Auckland

International reporting has hardly been a strong feature of New Zealand journalism. No New Zealand print news organisation has serious international news departments or foreign correspondents with the calibre of such overseas media as The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

It has traditionally been that way for decades. And it became much worse after the demise in 2011 of the New Zealand Press Association news agency, which helped shape the identity of the country for 132 years and at least provided news media with foreign reporting with an Aotearoa perspective fig leaf.

It is not even much of an aspirational objective with none of the 66 Voyager Media Awards categories recognising international reportage, unlike the Walkley Awards in Australia that have just 34 categories but with a strong recognition of global stories (last year’s Gold Walkley winner Mark Willacy of ABC Four Corners reported “Killing Field” about Australian war crimes in Afghanistan).

Aspiring New Zealand international reporters head off abroad and gain postings with news agencies and broadcasters or work with media with a global mission such as Al Jazeera.

Consequently our lack of tradition for international news coverage means that New Zealand media tend to have many media blind spots on critical issues, or misjudge the importance of some topics. Examples include the Samoan elections in April when the result was the most momentous game changer in more than four decades with the de facto election of the country’s first woman prime minister, unseating the incumbent who had been in power for 23 years.

The recent Israel-Palestine conflict in May was another case of where reporting was very unbalanced in favour of the oppressor for 73 years, Israel. Indonesian’s five decades of repression in the Melanesian provinces of West Papua is also virtually ignored by the mainstream media apart from the diligent, persistent and laudable coverage by RNZ Pacific.

There is a deafening silence about the current brutal and draconian attack on West Papuan pro-independence resistance fighters and leaders in remote areas with the internet unplugged apart from insightful journalists such as Johnny Blades.

No threat to status quo
As national award-winning cartoonist Malcom Evans wrote in a Daily Blog column on the eve of last week’s Voyager Media Awards that whoever won prizes, “it’s a sure bet that, he or she, won’t be someone whose work threatens the machinery that manufactures our consent to a perpetuation of the status quo”.

He continued:

“There will be no awards for anyone like Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, but none either for our own Nicky Hager or Jon Stephenson, who exposed war crimes committed in Afghanistan by New Zealanders, and none for Chris Trotter, Bryan Bruce or Susan St John whose writings have consistently exposed the criminal outcomes wrought on New Zealanders by neo-liberalism.”

Evans also cited “Indonesia’s rape of West Papua and East Timor” and the “damning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians” as examples of lack of media exposure of “New Zealand duplicity and connivance”.

Palestinian protesters target NZ media "bias"
Palestinian protesters target NZ media “bias” at the first Nakba Rally in Auckland last month. Image: David Robie/APR

Hanan Ashrawi, the first woman member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), told Middle East Eye in the wake of the conflict that left 256 Palestinians — including 66 children — and 13 Israelis dead that it was illogical to expect Israel to be both the “gatekeeper and to have the veto”.

“Israel has never implemented a single UN resolution at all, since its creation [in 1948]. And Israel has always existed outside the law. So why do you expect Israel suddenly to become a state that will respect others, human rights, international law and the multilateral system.

“Israel is the country, the only country that legislated a basic law that says only Jews have the right to self-determination in this land which is all of historical Palestine.

“Israel has destroyed the two-state solution.

When Israel opens up …
“Only when Israel opens up, when this system of discrimination, repression, apartheid is dismantled, only then will you begin to see that there are opportunities of equalities and so on.”

However, Ashrawi was complimentary about the new wave of youth leadership and support for the Palestinian cause sweeping across the globe. She was optimistic that a new political language, new initiatives for a solution would emerge.

New Zealand media did little to reflect this shifting global mood of support for Palestine – apart from Stuff and its publication of Jewish dissident Marilyn Garson’s articles from Sh’ma Kolienu – and it ignored the massive second week of protests for a lasting peace.

RNZ Mediawatch’s Hayden Donnell was highly critical over the lack of news coverage of the “newsworthy and historic” Samoan elections on April 9, commenting: “For nearly two days, RNZ was the only major New Zealand news website carrying information about the election results, and analysis of the outcome.”

As he pointed out, since 1982, the Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) had been in power and the current prime minister, Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi (now caretaker), had been prime minister since 1998.

“It’s very monumental that we’ve had a political party [opposition FAST Party led by Fiame Naomi Mata’afa] come through so quickly within 12 months to challenge the status quo in many different ways.”

Fiame has a slender one seat majority, 26 to 25, in the 51-seat Parliament, and was sworn in as government in still-disputed circumstances. But the New Zealand media coverage has still been patchy in spite of the drama of the deadlock, with the notable exception of journalists such as Barbara Dreaver, Vaimoana Tapaleao, Teuila Fuatai, and Michael Field at The Pacific Newsroom.

Tension high in Samoa stand-off
“Tension high in Samoa stand-off” – New Zealand Herald on 26 May 2021. Image: APR screenshot

Woke up to Samoa crisis
The New Zealand Herald
, for example, finally woke up to the crisis and splashed the story across its front page on May 25, but then for the next three days only published snippets on the crisis, all drawn from RNZ Pacific coverage. For the actual election result, the Herald only published a single paragraph buried on its foreign news pages.

"Democracy in crisis" - New Zealand Herald
“Democracy in crisis” – New Zealand Herald on 25 May 2021. Image: APR screenshot

As for West Papua, the silence continues. Not a single major New Zealand newspaper has given any significant treatment to the current crisis there described by The Sydney Morning Herald as a “manhunt for 170 ‘terrorists’ slammed as a ‘licence’ to shoot anyone”.

Singapore-based Chris Barrett and Karuni Rompies reported that “Indonesian forces are chasing 170 members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement [OPM]. The crackdown has reportedly displaced several thousand people.

“Tensions have been high since the separatists’ shooting in April of two teachers suspected of being Indonesian spies and the burning of three schools in Beoga, Puncak.”

This is the worst crisis in West Papua since the so-called Papuan Spring uprising and rioting in protest against Indonesian racism and repression in August 2019.

The Jakarta government was reported to have deployed some 21,000 troops in the Melanesian region, ruled since the fiercely disputed “Act of Free Choice” when 1025 people handpicked by the Indonesian military in 1969 voted to be part of Indonesia. The latest crackdown followed the killing in an ambush of a general who was head of Indonesian intelligence on April 25.

Indonesian police carry a body in the current crackdown near Timika, Papua.
Indonesian police carry a body in the current crackdown near Timika, Papua. Image: seputarpapua.com

Discrimination against Papuans
This latest round of strife marks widespread opposition to Indonesia’s 20-year autonomy status for the region which is due to expire in November and is regarded by critics as a failure.

Interim president Benny Wenda of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) denounces Indonesian authorities who have variously tried to label Papuan pro-independence groups “separatists”, “armed criminal groups”, and “monkeys” (this sparked the 2019 uprising).

“Now they are labelling us ‘terrorists’. This is nothing but more discrimination against the entire people of West Papua and our struggle to uphold our basic right to self-determination,” he says.

Wenda has a message for the United Nations and Pacific leaders: “Indonesia is misusing the issue of terrorism to crush our fundamental struggle for the liberation of our land from illegal occupation and colonisation.”

The West Papua issue is a critical one for the Pacific, just like East Timor was two decades ago in the lead-up to its independence. Why is our press failing to report this?

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1 COMMENT

  1. We in the Pacific Islands feel for our West Papuan brothers & sisters who want independence from the greedy Indonesian colonists, whose country Indonesia, is living of the mineral resources of West Papua. Come on Indonesia, you got your independence from the Dutch, why can’t you give West Papua the same independence? Have a heart!!

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