Pacific Scoop

West Papua: Journalists become targets for ‘playing with fire’

West Papua protest

West Papuans protest for independence. Image: West Papua Media Alerts

Journalists are being killed or threatened with violence for reporting on business deals, the environment, and the West Papuan independence movement.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Rebecca Leaver

The naked body of reporter Ardiansyah Matra’is was found, his arm tethered to a tree, in the Gudang Arang River in West Papua.

He braved months of harassment for his reports on illegal logging.

News reports said he had been tortured but police deny this and claim his death to be suicide.

His death joins a growing list of violent acts against journalists in the Indonesian province once known as Irian Jaya.

“Ardiansyah Matra’is was my friend and we worked together,” said Wensislaus Fatubun, who worked as Matra’is’ cameraman before his death.

Fatubun said: “We were approached by a member of Kopassus (the Special Forces Command of the Indonesian government).  Ardiansyah got very paranoid after Kopassus kept contacting him.”

Weeks before his death he reportedly accepted an invitation by a group of people claiming to be journalists to help them investigate illegal logging.

Family threatened
According to the Asia-Pacific arm of the International Federation of Journalists, the group were members of Kopassus who threatened him and his family if he did not stop reporting business deals.

A text message he received, translated by the Indonesia news website Kompas, said: “To cowardly journalist, never play with fire if you don’t want to be burned. If you still want to make a living on this land, don’t do weird things. We have data on you. . .be prepared for death.”

Journalists also face threats for reporting on the West Papuan independence movement known as the OMP, according to Australian-based Nick Chesterfield, of West Papua Media Alerts.

This independence struggle is Indonesia’s biggest unresolved territorial dispute after East Timor gained independence in 1999 and the Aceh conflict being resolved in 2005.

US Congress held a committee hearing in September into the reports of human rights violations from Indonesian military and security personal towards the people of West Papua  called: Crimes against humanity: When will Indonesia’s military be held accountable for deliberate and systematic abuses in West Papua?

“West Papua is like a mountain of gold sitting on a river of oil,” said Chesterfield.

“Journalists are killed or put in danger when they hold information about the many business deals.

No other option
“Anywhere journalists report fearlessly they are a target. But most journalists in West Papua simply put up with it, they have no other option,” he said.

Foreign journalists need a government permit to work in the province – which is rarely granted. In June, two French television journalists were detained after filming a human rights rally.

Baudouin Koenig, 54, and Carole Lorthiois, 27, were accused of violating their visas.

Koenig wrote in The Guardian later: “I came to Indonesia to draw the portrait of the greatest emerging power of the G20 members and largest Muslim state in the world . . .

“For a month, I travelled freely. I worked without restriction on topics as sensitive as sharia law, terrorism, corruption, the slaughter of communists in 1965 and the state of the economy.

“And so, in possession of a valid press card and journalist visa valid, I arrived in Jayapura, the capital of West Papua.

“A mere few hours after my landing, I touched the limits of freedom of the press. I was arrested while filming a student demonstration in favour of autonomy and democracy. After eight hours of interrogation, the bureau chief of immigration cancelled my visa and sent me back to Jakarta for immediate expulsion.”

Mark Worth

Australian journalist Mark Worth died suspiciously in a hotel in 2004. Photo: PANPA Bulletin

Suspicious death
The suspicious death of Australian journalist Mark Worth on January 15, 2004, in a hotel room in West Papua, is still yet to be properly investigated.

Authorities concluded he died of pneumonia but colleagues have urged the Australian government to conduct a more thorough investigation.

Worth, 45, died two days after the Australian Broadcast Corporation premiered his damming documentary on Indonesia’s violent response to the West Papuan independence movement, Land of the Morning Star.

Former Papuan politician Clemence Runawery told AAP questions remained unanswered about his friend’s death and has likened it to the Balibo Five – the Australian-based journalists murdered in East Timor in 1975.

“The Indonesians knew Worth was following us, they didn’t like it,” he said.

The availability of local information through the West Papuan media is also limited.

Military owners
Local papers, such as Cepos Cederawasih Pos and Tifa Irian, both in Indonesian, are owned or run by ex-Army or Indonesian politicians.

“Cendrawait Pos occasionally get some good stories,” said Chesterfield,   “but it is still run by ex-military men.  They are not an open slate for reportage.”

Smaller local papers have been set up and funded by church groups, such as Tabloid Jubi and Bintang Papua, where local people are trained to be reporters.

“They are run as proper media outlets for the community rather than the traditional Javanese controlled media.  The idea was to get more people reporting on their community,” said Chesterfield.

The intention of West Papua Media Alerts is to give local journalists a voice on the international stage.

“Our hope is that we have a really robust citizen media that can deliver accountability,” Chesterfield said.  “We want to stop people from being afraid of speaking out.”

Rebecca Leaver is a journalist with the Newspaper Publishers’ Association publication PANPA Bulletin. This article is republished with permission from the November edition.


  1. Andrew Johnson, 11. November 2010, 21:24

    West Papua is entitled to self-determination and independence, please visit the two petitions,

  2. Dale Lanan, 12. November 2010, 8:39

    Human rights and the crisis that’s ongoing in western half of island of New Guinea were slighted and condoned by the US President not even mentioning his decision to reestablish cooperation with Indonesian special forces accused of human rights violations while he was in Jakarta.. It’s as though business, the business of getting jobs for people back in the US and placating the feelings of the Muslim world were all that was on his mind. The income derived by investment in gold mining wrongfully obtained was more important than the freedom and rights of the peoples of the land exploited and phoning home to communicate from plane trips between stops about how to gain leverage by granting continued tax cuts for the rich crushed investigative reporting.

  3. A REDD week in Indonesia | REDD-Monitor (Pingback), 16. November 2010, 21:26

    […] footage of Indonesian soldiers torturing two villagers in West Papua. Last week, Pacific Scoop reported that a journalist was killed after researching illegal logging in […]