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Papua internet blackout illegal, Indonesian court says

Priest hopes the ruling will be a warning for the government to treat Papuans as equal citizens

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Papua internet blackout illegal, Indonesian court says

Protesters set fire to the provincial parliament building during an anti-racism protest in Manokwari, West Papua, on Aug. 19, 2019. A court in Jakarta has ruled the government broke the law when it blocked internet access to curb this and other protests. (Photo supplied)

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The Indonesian government broke the law when it imposed an internet blackout in Papua and West Papua during civil unrest in the provinces last year, according to a court ruling issued on June 3.

The ruling by the Jakarta State Administrative Court was hailed by Papuans as a victory for freedom of expression in the restive region.

Cutting internet access “was an unlawful act committed by government bodies or officials,” the court said in its ruling on a lawsuit brought by various groups including the Alliance of Independent Journalists of Indonesia, Press Legal Aid and Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet).

Defendants in the case were President Joko Widodo and the minister of communication and information, Johnny Gerard Plate, a Catholic.

It was brought after an internet blackout was imposed in the eastern region when protests erupted in several cities in September last year against alleged racism aimed at Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java, several weeks earlier.

The government claimed the internet blackout was to prevent the spread of fake news that could have triggered further violence.

However, the judges said authorities should only have restricted content that breached the law and not blocked the internet completely.

Muhammad Isnur, the groups’ lawyer, said the ruling opens the way to compensation claims.

Minister Plate said in a statement that he would speak with the attorney general to determine the next legal step.

Emanuel Gobay, a human rights lawyer in Papua, said the ruling was a victory in efforts to respect freedom of expression in Papua.

"I am very happy. This shows a small victory in the freedom of expression struggle, at least in cyberspace,” he told UCA News.

He said the government should respect the decision and fulfil Papuans’ right to internet access.

"There are still many regions in Papua that cannot access the internet, which makes it difficult for them to do certain activities, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic," he said.

Father John Djonga, an activist priest in Jayawijaya district, hoped the ruling would be an important warning for the government to treat Papuans as equal citizens.

"Blocking the internet is only one form of discrimination committed against Papuans," he said. "There are still many other forms of discrimination that have occurred over a long time and which are considered by some normal for Papua, including abusive law enforcement." 

He also hoped the ruling would reinvigorate activists in their fight for justice in human rights cases in Papua.

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