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Rights group, journalists press Indonesian government to lift internet curb in restive Papua

Rights group, journalists press Indonesian government to lift internet curb in restive Papua
FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand guard during a protest in Mimika, Papua, Indonesia, August 21, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Sevianto Pakiding via REUTERS -
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JAKARTA (Reuters) – Rights group and journalists slammed the Indonesian government’s move to block internet access in its easternmost region of Papua on Friday, saying it made reporting events there difficult after violent protests during which buildings were torched.

Abdul Manan, chairman of Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), said the measure had “obstructed our right to obtain information” and prevented journalists from reporting on events there.

Police have flown in 1,200 officers to quell sometimes violent protests since Monday in a region that already has a heavy military presence due to decades of separatist conflicts.

Papuan towns such as Manokwari, Sorong and Fakfak had seen protesters setting fire to buildings including a market, a jail and a legislature in the biggest series of demonstrations in years.

“This is a critical time because security personnel have been deployed in Papua. In many cases, this is followed by human rights abuses where they can intimidate and arbitrarily arrest people,” Manan said.

Usman Hamid, Amnesty International Indonesia’s executive director, said in a statement the internet block meant Papuans would be unable to share evidence of abuses by security forces.

The communication ministry has said the curb was intended to stop people from sharing “provocative” messages that could trigger more violence.

President Joko Widodo said in televised remarks on Thursday the internet curb was for “our common good”.

More than a dozen rights group and media associations will demonstrate at the communication ministry’s office in Jakarta later on Friday to demand the ban be lifted.

Nearly 8,000 people have also signed an online petition calling for the government to restore internet access to Papua.

A video obtained by Reuters showed police firing tear gas into crowds of thousands of Papuans rallying at the parliament building in the town of Nabire on Thursday after demonstrators threw rocks at them.

There were no reports of protests on Friday.

Reporting access for foreign journalists in the restive region has been limited, despite Widodo’s announcement in 2015 that Papua was open to foreign media.

The latest spate of demonstrations in Papua and across Indonesia was triggered by a racist slur against Papuan students who were hit by tear gas in their dormitory and detained in the city of Surabaya in East Java last week.

The rallies grew in several places, including Jakarta, on Thursday into a broader demand for an independence referendum.

Papua and West Papua provinces, the resource-rich western part of the island of New Guinea, were a Dutch colony that was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticised U.N.-backed referendum in 1969.

Asked about the demand for an independence vote, Luhut Pandjaitan, a senior minister, said: “There’s no such thing.”

(Reporting by Jessica Damiana and Gayatri Suroyo; Additional reporting by Wilda Asmarini; Editing by Paul Tait)

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