Territorial Disputes and Media Repression: A Case Study of Kashmir and West Papua

Aashna Jamal

The Indonesian provinces of West Papua and Papua. Figure 1. Source: Lowy Institute, 2020

Paradise on Earth and the Land of the Bird of Paradise, Kashmir and West Papua respectively, have one thing in common: India and Indonesia assert that they are their integral and indivisible territories (Doherty, 2019)(BJP4India, 2020). Any international critique about the legitimacy of their dominion over these territories or allegations of human right violations are promptly met with the retort: it is our domestic issue. Over the years, media across various platforms, both local and foreign, has had to navigate reporting under the repressive eye of increasingly uncompromising governments in these countries. More and more so, media repression is not limited to the voices of traditional media but includes activists, academics, and common citizens.

Kashmir and West Papua’s indigenous self-determination movements can be traced back to the partition of India in 1947 and the end of the WWII in 1945 respectively. West Papua, earlier called Irian Jaya, is the western half of the island of New Guinea (the eastern being Papua New Guinea). The Dutch had sovereignty over parts of the Papua region after the end of WWII. In 1962, the USA brokered something called the New York Agreement for Dutch parts of West New Guinea/ West Papua to become a UN protectorate, i.e. the UN would essentially be responsible for the area in a trustee position, under Indonesian administration till a referendum could be held (Tudor, 2021).

Subsequently, a plebiscite vote was held in 1969 with only 1025 hand-picked people, and West Papua was annexed by Indonesia. It wasn’t a fair vote, most voters having been detained and coerced before the ballot (Doherty, 2019). A freedom movement for West Papua has been in existence since, seeking independence from Indonesia (Paddock, 2020). In 2003, the West Papua region was divided into two provinces – West Papua and Papua. Together, they are still called West Papua, and will be referred to as such in this essay.

Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) was a princely state in erstwhile British India that the then Dogra Maharaja acceded to the Dominion of India instead of Pakistan in 1947. This was done under an Instrument of Accession, with the provision of a referendum in the future to determine the status of the Kashmiri people. The aftermath of the accession reignited a self-determination movement in the region, which had started during the Dogra rule (Bose, 2005). The Indian Constitution inserted Article 370 in 1950 which limited its mandate in the then state of J&K.

The autonomy of the state was diluted over the years via various constitutional orders till the Article was finally revoked in 2019. In particular, Kashmir region’s history post 1947 has been marked by protests, an armed struggle, a high degree of militarisation associated with human right violations, and continuing uncertainty in the life of the Kashmiri people. Overtime, international bodies, and many sovereign states have diminished the issue of J&K to a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, largely ignoring the unresolved political aspirations of the people of this region. In this essay, the former state of J&K is referred to as Kashmir for the sake of brevity, and because many of the issues outlined in the following paragraphs especially concern the Kashmir region.

Framed by larger questions of self-determination and autonomy, the issue of media repression is crucial to understand  the complex ways in which the state operates in these two places. As the succeeding paragraphs explain, this goes a few ways: First, controlling the narrative regarding Kashmir and West Papua by limiting access. Second, surveillance of commentary, spreading disinformation and censorship. Lastly, denying services and resources are causes of concern for independent reportage.

Managing Media: Inside Out

Both Kashmir and West Papua have had major political upheavals in the last few years. In Kashmir, this was the de-operationalisation of Article 370 and Article 35 A on 5 August 2019, which limited the power of the Indian state in J&K and gave certain privileges to the permanent residents of the state. In July 2021, the Indonesian parliament voted to amend a Special Autonomy Law of 2001 which has implications for autonomy and decentralisation in West Papua (Atrakouti, 2021)(Strangio, 2021). Interestingly the new law rejects the  prospects of West Papua to have local political parties evoking an eerie juxtaposition of the August 2019 move in Kashmir, which essentially rendered mainstream parties powerless as the state became a Union Territory that would be ruled from the centre.

India and Indonesia’s attitudes towards media, especially during these upheavals, sparked criticism over press freedom in these countries. In 2021, India ranked 142nd in the Reporters without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index; some reasons being the hate campaigns waged against journalists on social networks, criminal prosecution to gag journalists and the ‘Orwellian content regulations’ in Kashmir. Indonesia ranked 113th as Indonesian President Joko Widodo or Jokowi continued to restrict media access to West Papua despite his pro media comments (RSF, 2021).

Both countries have put measures in place to make access for foreign journalists difficult. In 2015, Indonesia’s president Jokowi said that the government would lift restrictions for accredited foreign journalists who wanted to report on West Papua. This spoken commitment did not translate into a written decree, even after his second term re-election in 2019. Alliance of Independent Journalists reported in 2021 that out of the ‘scores of applications for permits to report in Papua, only 18 permits were issued’ (Pacific Media, 2021). Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that a government ‘clearing house’ still existed to vet journalist requests before giving them permission to visit (HRW, 2017)(Human Rights Papua, 2019) .

In 2018, the Ministry of External Affairs in India sent communication to foreign correspondents to apply for travel permission if they wanted to visit Jammu & Kashmir. This had been done in 2016 as well when a Kashmiri militant leader, Burhan Wani was killed. The Print reported that only two foreign journalists were allowed to visit between May 2018 and January 2019 (The Wire, 2019)(Bharadwaj, 2019). This is reminiscent of the early days of the separatist movement in the 1990s when the New York Times reported that foreign journalists were barred from Kashmir (Crossette, 1990).

In the aftermath of 5 August, Kashmiri journalists were unable to report for a certain period of time due to an e-curfew, a problem further compounded by the fact that even foreign journalists were not allowed to visit the region (RSF, 2020a). Barring foreign journalists often means that they are forced to rely on second hand accounts or not access events as they happen in real time, delaying critical information flow.

Along with making access to foreign media harder, any reportage that goes against the state narrative is lambasted by the two nations. Soon after the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019, BBC released a clip of anti-government protests in Srinagar. These were heavily contested by the Indian administration as being fake (Singh, 2019). Some mainstream media in India aired sensationalist shows irresponsibly labelling the western media as ‘fake’ and ‘jihadi’ media (News X, 2019).  In Indonesia, an English site called Wawawa Journal, which discredited foreign journalism in the region, was found to have links to a former Indonesian Vice President (Strick and Syavira, 2019).

To combat any form of dissident narratives, the state also controls which international observers are allowed to visit during times of upheaval. UN officials have reported lack of access to West Papua, including successive UN High Commissioners for human rights (Letters, 2019). In 2019, India allowed a select delegation of right-wing EU parliamentarians for a sanitised and a state-sponsored tour of Kashmir. The delegation recognised Article 370 an internal issue of India at the end of visit while voicing concerns of terrorism. This visit was made after India denied a visit to a US senator as well as Opposition Members of Parliament (The Economic Times, 2019). If these practices continue in the future, the world will continue to get a biased rendering of West Papuan and Kashmiri affairs.

Controlling the Cyberspace: Surveillance and Censorship

Commentary or dissent online that goes against the state is shut down. In 2020, BBC reported an instance of hashtag hijacking where the #freewestpapua was taken over by stories of development and progress in the region, which were traced to an Indonesian company (Strick and Syavira, 2019). Pro-Indonesian trolls have been known to dislike or report certain reportage or pictures to get it taken down (RSF, 2020b). In 2020, a trolling campaign by Indonesian users targeted the official Instagram account of the government of Vanuatu after its speech at the UN about concerns of human right violations in West Papua (Firdaus, 2021a).

Similarly, foreign celebrities or politicians voicing concerns about the situation in Kashmir are met with brute attacks on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere. In 2019, when US Senator and former Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders condemned India’s actions in Kashmir, multiple campaigns surfaced online in India linking his remarks to one of his campaign managers of Pakistani origin (Shukla, 2019) (Gaurav C Sawant on Twitter, 2020). This is just one of the many examples of prominent social media users facing backlash and being cancelled in India after speaking about Kashmir.

Disinformation campaigns are run to change the narrative of events. Rest of World reported that many sites disseminating information on events in West Papua, and posing as independent outlets could actually be linked to an Indonesian soldier (Firdaus, 2021a). In another instance, a Jakarta media company, InsightID, that had bots hijacking the #freewestpapua was found placing targeted paid ads to Facebook users in western countries about normalcy in the region (Strick and Syavira, 2019).

It is important to note that large media platforms are also involved in cooperating with national governments to curb certain commentary on their platforms. Big media companies  including Facebook and Twitter actively take down content on West Papua, some on unfounded grounds such as nudity (RSF, 2020b). Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua, a pro-independence group, lost access to its Twitter account right before independence day celebrations in 2020 which they blamed on a bot attack (Firdaus,2021a).

This is similar to measures taken in Kashmir where many accounts on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have been taken down for violating community guidelines. A popular account Stand with Kashmir with a large following was made inaccessible to Instagram users based in India. A US based organisation found that thousands of tweets shared by accounts focused on Kashmir had been withheld by Twitter under its “country withheld content policy”  (Shah, 2020). These curbs are not on large media, but on commentators which include activists and academics.

The fate of independent news sources or opinion platforms is even worse in Indonesia, being targeted or blocked routinely. According to Rest of World, websites run by the Free West Papua movement have been blocked for supporting separatism. Other independent news sites such as the Suara Papua were periodically blocked, and newspapers like Tabloid Jubi reported distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks which made it overload (Firdaus, 2021a). Accounts on Twitter like Lost Kashmiri History or With Kashmir on Instagram were taken down under similar pretexts. Control of commentary, disinformation campaigns and reworking of realities to suit state narratives are deliberate attempts to impinge upon independent voices in these regions.

Denying Services, Disrupting Information

Cutting off the internet or allowing only low bandwidth are used as strategies by both India and Indonesia. In 2021, Indonesia cut off the internet citing a broken cable. Activists disagreed saying that it was a common method used to curb discussion of violence or dissent. In 2021, Rest of World reported at least 8 cases of internet blackouts and bandwidth throttling in the West Papua region (Firdaus, 2021b). During one of the longest internet shutdown in the world post 5 August 2019, Kashmiri journalists had to depend on a state cell with internet access to file their stories. 4G internet was restored only in February 2021 (The Polis Project, Inc, 2021).

Media is often intimidated through outright measures or by veiled means such as cutting off revenue sources. A Jakarta-based Alliance for Independent Journalists reported intimidation by the military and radical religious groups as issues they have to deal with on a regular basis. Pacific Media reported that there were ‘38 cases of intimidation against media companies and the media in general in Indonesia’ (Pacific Media, 2021). More recently, Rest of World reported that journalists have faced online and offline intimidation, including doxing (Firdaus, 2021b).

In Kashmir, there are well documented instances of harassment, surveillance and physical violence towards journalists (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2021)(The Polis Project, Inc, 2021)(Amnesty International, 2020). In 2018, the Wire reported that since 1990, 19 journalists in Kashmir have been killed at the hands of unidentified gunmen which include militants and armed forces (The Wire, 2018). Journalists face reprisals both at the hands of the government and militant groups. In 2019, the government refused to give advertisements to Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader without giving any reason, and also de-empanelled 34 newspapers (The Polis Project, Inc, 2021). Given that advertisements are the biggest sources of revenue for newspapers, this was a crippling blow.

Repressive government policies and laws serve as a deterrent to objective non-partisan journalism. An anti-blasphemy law and the Law on “Informasi dan Transaksi Elektronik” (Electronic and Information Transactions Law) is in place in Indonesia to dissuade journalists from reporting and self-censor (HRW, 2010). Similarly, in Kashmir the government unveiled a New Media Policy of 2020 which asks for empanelment of newspapers, background checks of journalists and vetting from the government and security agencies to deem that the news is not fake, anti-national or unethical (Zargar, 2020). The government can deem news as fake without any explanation, and initiate legal action (RSF, 2020a). Especially after the revocation of Article 370 in 2019, various journalists have been booked under notorious laws such as the  Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), usually used for terrorists, and Public Safety Act (PSA) which essentially renders them without bail until trial (Chakravarty, 2020).

A key concern arising out of all of these issues is self-censorship. In September 2021, Free Press Kashmir reported that the Kashmiri administration had made a circular that would bar certain people from travelling abroad if they were on what was called the ‘adverse list’ (Free Press Kashmir, 2021). This included 22 journalists, as well as academicians and human right activists. When media and other informed voices are forced to silence themselves, consumers of news and other related content cannot be assured that they are getting the whole picture.

Being able to piece the truth of these two regions still remains difficult despite global interconnectedness. Media repression should concern the international community and citizens of these countries alike. Both countries need to address the implicit practice of managing media narratives by restricting access to external observers such as journalists and diplomats. Surveillance and censorship of online and offline media, academics, activists, and even common citizens, continues to filter out narratives unaligned to the state. Denying services such as internet access and cutting financial resources makes reporting difficult for both online and offline media. If the fourth estate is not completely free, and commentary or dissent is clamped down upon, Kashmiri and West Papuan realities will be cloaked in silence.

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Aashna Jamal is an economist with experience of working in low and middle-income countries. She has worked on projects in India, Timor-Leste, Lebanon, Zimbabwe, and West Africa. She was selected as a Fellow under the Overseas Development Institute Fellowship scheme and requested by Timor-Leste as a civil servant. She served as lead economist  in the budget department of Ministry of Finance, Timor-Leste between 2018-2020. She has cross-cutting experience in governance, health, child protection, social protection, and education sectors. She holds an MA in International and Development Economics from Yale University, USA, and a BA (Honours) in Economics from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. She has received scholarships from Aga Khan Foundation, Rotary International, and P.E.O International, amongst other institutions. Her interests lie in public finance and governance within fragile states. She likes writing fiction in her spare time.

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