Words matter in telling West Papuan news stories

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How Reuters reported one of the stories relating to the New Zealand hostage pilot Phillip Merhtens in West Papua on March 1.

COMMENT: By Philip Cass

Words matter when telling the story of West Papua’s continuing struggle for independence.

Recently, New Zealand media carried reports of the kidnapping of a New Zealand pilot by a militant West Papuan group allied to the independence struggle.

Phillip Mehrtens, a pilot for Susi Air, was abducted by independence fighters from the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, at a remote highlands airstrip on February 7.

He is still a hostage in spite of an attack by Indonesian forces on his kidnappers last week.

Unfortunately, the language used by mainstream media reports has been falling into line with Indonesian government depictions of the Free Papua Movement.

While The Guardian and Al Jazeera referred to them as “independence fighters,” they also used the term rebels.

So did RNZ and Reuters, which also used the word “separatists”. “Independence fighters” or “freedom fighters” should have been the preferred terms.

We do not condone violent action, but the West Papuans are fighting for their freedom from decades of brutal Indonesian occupation. They deserve recognition for what they are, not what Indonesia deems them to be.

Dr Philip Cass is convenor of the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission in Auckland and editor of Whāia te Tika newsletter.

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