ABEPURA, Indonesia: Indonesian President Joko Widodo said Saturday decades-long reporting restrictions for foreign journalists in Papua would be lifted and ordered the release of a group of political prisoners in the insurgency-hit eastern province.
The moves signaled that Widodo, who took office last year, is easing the tight grip that Jakarta has long kept on the mineral-rich province, where poorly armed fighters have for years fought a low-level insurgency against the central government.
Widodo has taken a keen interest in Papua, pledging to improve livelihoods in the heavily-militarized area which lags behind other parts of Indonesia in terms of development.
He revealed in an interview with a group of reporters in Abepura, Papua, that from Sunday foreign journalists would be allowed full access.
“Tomorrow I will declare it,” he said.
Indonesia has long been deeply sensitive about foreign journalists covering Papua, with applications for permission required to be submitted to numerous government agencies, which rarely grant it.
Punishments for foreigners caught illegally reporting can be harsh — two French journalists were given short jail terms last year for trying to make a documentary on the separatist movement without authorization.
The disclosure came shortly after five political prisoners — convicted over a 2003 raid on an Indonesian military weapons arsenal — were granted clemency by Widodo. They will soon walk free from Abepura prison.
Dozens of Papuan separatists are in jail for committing treason for acts such as raising the pro-independence “Morning Star” flag and taking part in anti-government protests.
Widodo shook hands with the five ethnic Melanesian prisoners at the prison, presenting each with a letter confirming the remainder of their sentences was being waived.
“Today we are releasing these five detainees to stop the stigma of conflict in Papua,” he told reporters at the prison.
“We need to create a sense of peace in Papua. This is just the beginning.”
The release marks a change in approach from previous governments. During the 10-year rule of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, only one political prisoner in Papua was granted clemency, according to Human Rights Watch.
However activists said releasing a handful of prisoners was not enough, and accused Widodo of seeking to burnish his image after facing international outrage over the execution of foreign drug convicts.
Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the move was “more like image-making”.
“It’s a good step but it’s nothing new,” he said, calling on Widodo to go further by granting prisoners an amnesty.
Prisoners have to request clemency and admit guilt before it is granted, but this is not a requirement for an amnesty.
There are still regular flare-ups of violence in Papua, where insurgents are fighting on behalf of the mostly ethnic Melanesian population.
Indonesian troops are regularly accused of abusing Papuan villagers in the name of anti-rebel operations, but Jakarta denies allegations of systematic human rights abuses.
Jakarta took control of Papua, which forms half of the island of New Guinea, in 1963 from former colonial power the Netherlands.