A random stabbing or attack on press in Papua?

Amnesty International has demanded Indonesia conduct a quick and impartial investigation into the attempted stabbing murder of an Indonesian journalist who had exposed cases of rape by police in Papua province.

Papua is a place that the great democracy of Indonesia has sealed off from the outside world in order, some say, to hide the genocide it is committing against the indigenous Melanesian majority. So as much as independent reporters and rights workers would like to know the facts of the case, it is impossible to find out because they are not allowed to go there and check for themselves.

So we have to rely on the Indonesian government, and the police themselves, to tell us what happened. You can see where this is likely to end up. A day after the crime the national police are already saying the attack was not linked to the reporter’s work. We’ll just have to take their word for it.

Banjir Ambarita is a well respected freelance reporter and photographer. He is a vital source of information from Papua, not only for the Indonesian media in Jakarta but for the foreign media based there as well.

Unknown attackers ambushed him as he rode home on his motorcycle in Jayapura on Thursday morning. They stabbed him in the chest and the stomach, then fled. Banjir managed to get to a police station before he collapsed. He was rushed to hospital and is now in intensive care after surgery.

Those people who find it intellectually fashionable to criticise the media for shallow or trite reporting, think about Banjir and the work he does. There are many journalists like him, not only in Papua but around the world, including the Philippines, Egypt and Iraq. You rarely hear about them until they wind up dead on the side of a road or in intensive care with gunshot or stab wounds. They don’t take these risks for the money or the glory. None of them are rich. They do it because they believe people need to know what their governments and business leaders are up to.

Banjir recently wrote about two horrible cases of rape and sex abuse by the police in Papua. One involved a 15-year-old girl who was brutally gang-raped over a period of several days in February by four police officers and three civilians. Local media have reported the girl was detained in a house and beaten if she resisted.

The other case involved a married woman who had been detained for illegal gambling. Three police officers forced her to perform oral sex on multiple occasions while she was in custody from November to January. She reportedly tried to kill herself.

The first case is under investigation, and the police have promised to charge four officers allegedly involved. The provincial police chief has resigned to take moral responsibility for the second case, which is also under investigation. It is illuminating that the officers allegedly involved have already been forced to stand in the sun by way of punishment. It sounds like a POW camp, and some people would say that’s exactly what Papua is.

The Indonesian police are constantly mired in grubby scandals and allegations of torture, particularly in Papua. Yet officers rarely do the right and honourable thing and resign to take responsibility for the misconduct of their men.  It’s probably unwise to praise an Indonesian police officer at any time, given the skeletons that might lurk in his cupboard, but Jayapura police chief Imam Setiawan set a good example by resigning.

The UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, visited Indonesia in 2007  and wrote a pretty damning report about what he found. In a press release at the time, he said:

No country in the world is immune to the crimes of torture and ill-treatment: in the opinion of the Special Rapporteur, the key element in effectively combating this problem is for each and every State to recognize this reality and confront the problem head on.

Passing a law against torture and protecting journalists who expose police abuse would be a good start. According to Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists,  there were 46 cases of violence against journalists last year compared to 37 in 2009. Combined with abuse of defamation laws by businessmen and politicians, that’s a worrying trend for press freedom – and reform in general – in the world’s “third biggest democracy”.


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