An Australian journalist based in Jakarta since 2006, the BBC’s Rebecca Henschke got a special permit to visit Papua with a crew to cover a military aid operation, but was arrested and expelled, shortly after arriving, on the grounds that she had “hurt the feelings” of soldiers in a tweet.
Accompanied by a photo of foodstuffs, the offending tweet said: “This is the aid coming in for severely malnourished children in Papua – instant noodles, super sweet soft drinks and biscuits.”
Henschke was one of several foreign journalists allowed to go to Papua to cover the military operation, aimed at relieving a malnutrition crisis exacerbated by a measles epidemic that has killed more than 70 children. Foreign journalists are not usually let into Papua, an impoverished region where separatist movements are active.
“It is intolerable that foreign reporters are still banned from Papua,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “All Rebecca Henschke did was send a photo taken in the field. This arbitrary decision by the Indonesian military gives the impression that they are acting as a state within the state, especially with regard to Papua.
“Must we remind President Joko Widodo of his promise to open up the region to the media? If he wants to maintain a minimum of credibility, he must give some clear evidence that he is doing this.”
In his search for a strategy for restoring peace in Papua, the president (also known as “Jokowi”) said in 2015 that he would review the restrictions that in practice prevent journalists from visiting Papua. But, three years later, the media’s ability to work there seems to depend as much as ever on military approval.
Defending Henschke’s expulsion, a military spokesman in Papua said her photo showed commercial food products, not the supplies brought by the military. Henschke later deleted her original tweet and posted another saying: “Adding important NOTE: Other sources say this is NOT aid but normal supplies. Huge relief effort underway here.”
Because of the serious media freedom violations in its two easternmost provinces, Papua and West Papua, Indonesia is still ranked no higher than 124th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.