Behind the elusive mythmaking over Fiji, West Papua


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By David Robie

On the eve of a vital meeting in Port Vila planning a more unified stance over independence in West Papua by disparate Melanesian solidarity groups earlier this month, the issue of Papua and Indonesian human rights violations was also the topic of a conference almost 2200 km away in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In Vila, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) emerged as the umbrella organisation to carry forward Papuan aspirations and to negotiate with the Melanesian Spearhead Group.

The Indonesian news agency Antara sent one of its most senior journalists all the way from Jakarta to cover last week’s conference in Auckland, yet the local New Zealand media barely noticed the lively political conference.

Comprising the National Committee for West Papua (KNPB), West Papuan National Coalition for Liberation and the Federal Republic of West Papua, the group wants to reverse the MSG refusal last year to grant membership status without it becoming “more representative”.

“I’m really confident that we will be a full member next year,” said a spokesperson, Benny Wenda. “We are the ultimate because we are Melanesian. Geographically and racially, we are Melanesia.”

But the mood of optimism took a dive early last week with the news of at least five Papuan teenagers being shot dead at a protest in the Paniai regency in the latest human rights violation.

The Indonesian news agency Antara sent one of its most senior journalists all the way from Jakarta to cover last week’s conference in Auckland, yet the local New Zealand media barely noticed the lively political conference.

In Auckland, a series of journalists, media educators and human rights advocates spoke about the situation in Fiji since the first post-coup general election in 2006 and also the ongoing West Papua issues at the first-ever “Political journalism in the Asia-Pacific” conference in New Zealand.

The Indonesian news agency Antara sent one of its most senior journalists all the way from Jakarta to cover last week’s Pacific Journalism Review conference in Auckland, yet the local New Zealand media barely noticed the lively political conference.

Apart from a half-hour interview on Radio NZ’s Sunday with Max Stahl, the Timor-Leste film maker and investigative journalist world-famous for his live footage of the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre — images that ultimately led to the world’s first independence-by-video triumph some eight years later — and a couple of bulletins on RNZ Pacific, you would have hardly known the event was on.

But the conference was packed with compelling and newsworthy presentations by journalists and media educators. Topics ranged from asylum seekers to the emerging “secret state” in Australia; from climate change to the logging of “cloud forest’ on the island of Kolombangara; from postelections Fiji to the political ecology of mining in New Caledonia.

All tremendously hard-hitting stuff and a refreshing reminder how parochial and insignificant the New Zealand media is when it comes to regional Asia-Pacific affairs.

New Zealand editors are more interested in the ISIL beheadings of Syria and Iraq than the horrendous human rights violations happening under their noses in their own Pacific “front yard”.

Ampatuan massacre
Take the 2009 Ampatuan massacre, for example, in the southern Philippines, where 58 people were killed in cold blood in an ambush of an electoral motorcade — 32 of them journalists. A candlelight vigil took place on the AUT city campus at PJR2014 to remember the victims.

Not a word in the local media.

One of the lively exchanges at the conference involved a clash of “truths” over alleged and persistent Indonesian human rights abuses in West Papua.

This was precisely why Antara’s Rahmad Nasution made the trip — to give the government spin to deflect any accusations and statements such as those made by West Papuan Media editor Nick Chesterfield from Australia, and New Zealand-based Maire Leadbeater of the West Papuan Auckland Action group.

Nasution’s business card simply states “journalist” (although he is described as “chief executive” in other sources after a decade working with the agency) and he stayed in the back row of the auditorium for most of the conference. But he became instantly animated as soon as Indonesia came in for any criticism.

‘Pessimistic’ view
In one of the exchanges, Nasution condemned Chesterfield for his “very pessimistic” analysis of the Indonesian and West Papuan relationship in his paper “Overcoming media mythmaking, malignancies and dangerous conduct in West Papua reportage”.

Nasution pointed out that the new President, Joko Widodo, had singled out Papua to make his first visit to a “province’ during the election campaign: “There is a big hope in Indonesia that the new government will do its best to improve the situation there.”

“West Papua is more than 4400 km from Jakarta — it is a long, long way,” replied Chesterfield.

“When Jokowi surrounds himself in cabinet with unreformed human rights abusers, he has sent a message to the military as well that he is not going to challenge it.

“So — I had better be careful how I say this — but it is very much up to the way the Indonesian people hold Jokowi to his promises, and take action if he doesn’t fulfil his promises.

“I agree that Indonesian civil society is very much pro-peace in West Papua — not necessarily pro-independence — but it is certainly pro ‘Let’s sort this out, let’s have dialogue.’ This is a really positive sign [compared with] before.

Papuan right
“But at the end of the day, it is not up to the Indonesian people. It is up to the West Papuan people and their right to self-determination, and their right to organise their own media.”

Chesterfield shared the podium with two speakers from Fiji, Repúblika editor Ricardo Morris, who is also president of the Fijian Media Association, and senior journalism lecturer Dr Shailendra Singh of the University of the South Pacific.

Ironically, both Morris and Dr Singh — and also Television New Zealand Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver — came in for some flak from Fijian authorities and the propaganda press (i.e. the Fiji Sun). None of the criticism from Fiji Media Industry Authority chair Ashwin Raj was based on an actual reading of the speeches or observing the livestream feed.

Instead, Raj was reacting to a Pacific Media Watch headline “Fiji media still face ‘noose around neck’ challenges”. In fact, Morris was referring specifically to the “noose” around Fiji Television because of its six-monthly licence renewals. At any time, the licence could be revoked.

However, in reality the “noose” also applies to the whole of the Fiji media while the draconian Media Industry Development Decree remains in force. It needs to be repealed at the first available opportunity for real press freedom to return to Fiji.

Watch the video report on the 20th anniversary of the PJR2014 Conference here:

This article was first published by the Pacific Institute of Public Policy on 15 December 2014.
David Robie
David Robie
Dr David Robie was previously founding director and professor of journalism at AUT’s Pacific Media Centre (PMC). He worked with postgraduate student journalists to edit Pacific Media Watch - a daily digital archive of dispatches about Pacific journalism and media, ethics and professionalism. The PMC also jointly published the high profile independent Pacific Scoop news website with industry partner, Scoop Media, and Asia Pacific Report, which David now edits independently in partnership with Evening Report: David is also the founding editor of Pacific Journalism Review (PJR).
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