The following is an edited version of a speech JNI’s Grants Director Lisa Main delivered to The Jakarta Post in August, sharing her experiences reporting on West Papua and elsewhere.
In late 2012, when I was working for Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, we did a story about the West Papuan independence movement.
What sparked our interest were allegations that counter-terrorism forces, Detachment 88, were active in Papua and allegedly involved in the suppression of the independence movement and the murder of one if its leaders.
We were interested in this story because Australia was involved in the training of the counter-terrorism forces, but also because very few journalists were allowed into Papua and that naturally sparked our curiosity, and the question of why?
We didn’t apply for journalists’ visas because, after speaking to the many who had been refused before, we knew they’d be rejected. Instead, we made a decision to go in and bear the risk of being picked up by the authorities.
We knew that if we were caught inside we would be likely detained and there was very little our employer or government could do in that situation.
We planned the operation so that if any of us were picked up by the authorities the others would have sufficient filming equipment to access the story. And this was my first risky assignment. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid.
On the ground
So what did we see when we arrived? Military checkpoints everywhere in Jayapura.
We met with independence leaders, including Victor Yeimo, who talked about their lack of freedoms, particularly a lack of freedom to express their political views without fear of arrest or violence. Even then, Yeimo was resigned to his fate that in all likelihood he would one day be arrested or killed.
Our job as journalists was, for a brief moment, to give voice to those who rarely had access to the international media. And we told a very human story about what life feels like, from the perspective of the West Papua independence movement — to live under constant threat of arrest.
In response to the story, Australia’s then Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Australian diplomats had made representations to their Indonesian counterparts requesting an inquiry into the allegations aired by our story. To this day, I don’t know if that inquiry ever happened.
As we know, Victor Yeimo was recently arrested, accused of being the “mastermind” of the 2019 protests, on charges of treason and inciting violence and social unrest.
Journalists labelled terrorists
Since producing the West Papua story, I’ve travelled on assignment and experienced some very intense conflict zones, mostly for my two years in the Middle East, when ISIS was at its apex and in control of many parts of Syria.
I was on the ground in Egypt when the Arab Spring quickly fell into a dark and violent winter. The former Military General — now Egyptian President Sisi — was cracking down on dissent.
I was in the courtroom of Egypt’s notorious Tora prison where Australian journalist Peter Greste was arrested on terrorism charges with two of his Egyptian colleagues, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed.
Peter Greste is a former BBC and Al Jazeera English journalist. He was clearly not a terrorist.
I was struck by many things in that courtroom, such as the judge, who routinely turned up at least two hours late, always with his sunnies on. After spending countless hours in that courtroom, it was clear it was a courtroom in name only. There would be no due legal process, no compelling evidence, no justice.
Peter’s incarceration attracted the world’s media and the courtroom was packed for every session. He also had a global campaign making waves around the world and applying pressure to democratic leaders to do something and help secure his release. How could an Australian journalist be mistaken for a terrorist? It was absurd and politically motivated.
But what has never left me, is that in the same courtroom, in the cage next to Peter, a handful of Egyptian students also appeared. They had been protesting against the military crackdown, and were also arrested under terrorism charges. They were much younger, in their late teens, and they begged the judges to see their parents. They shouted that they were being tortured.
The room was full of international journalists, yet their story did not get the same attention. Journalists inside Egypt who dared report on their plight risked being locked up alongside them.
These are places where it is very, very difficult to work as a journalist. But that’s why you do the job. To give a voice to those who otherwise have none, to bear witness to events that shape our history and who we are as a human race, as a society — the good, the bad and the terrifying. And our job is to tell those uncomfortable stories — stories that people in power don’t want to see told, because we know that the greatest abuses of power tend to happen in places we cannot see.
What’s changed and what hasn’t
We now live in a post-truth, post-privacy world. When we entered West Papua eight years ago, we knew our metadata could be traced by authorities. But, now, state surveillance capabilities are incredibly sophisticated. And much of this was designed and implemented to fight terrorism.
A recent investigation by The Washington Post and other institutions found Pegasus spyware was deployed on 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, business executives and two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. FinFisher is another spyware now in the hands of most governments with little or no transparency around the legal frameworks for its deployment. Even with encrypted apps like Signal there is no longer any conceivable way a journalist can keep their sources confidential.
Broadly drawn terrorism legislation enacted at the height of the ISIS threat has not been unwound, and in Australia this legislation includes provisions that significantly constrained the press.
When governments are seen to manipulate terrorism threats by introducing responsive measures that constrain a free press, or label human rights activists as “terrorists”, trust in governments is eroded.
When I was in Egypt covering the trial of Peter Greste and his colleagues, I’ll never forget what was said to me by the fianceé of jailed reporter, Mohammed Fahmy. She was a proud, middle class Egyptian who said:
“My friends believe he (my fiancé) is a terrorist. What I’m so ashamed about is that if this wasn’t happening to me, if I didn’t know better, I would have believed he was a terrorist too. It’s easy to believe the lie because it doesn’t hurt me, but now I’m in the middle of it, and everything looks different. I don’t know who I am, who my people are. I’m angry.”
Misinformation is everywhere
What is also new is that information is everywhere and untrustworthy. This is different and more unpredictable than traditional state propaganda. The rise of social media and misinformation poses other new challenges for society. We know fake news spreads six times faster than true news.
I still haven’t fully come to terms with the consequences of what we witnessed on January 6 in the United States. What influence did disinformation have on the group of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol? Could this happen without misinformation targeting groups on social media? It was staggering to see adults so strongly believe the election was (falsely) stolen.
Misinformation is also increasing the risk of an already deadly COVID-19 pandemic. We are seeing the pandemic rage on in areas where there is no belief in vaccination.
It’s something the Institute I work for, the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas, is looking at in our upcoming News in Asia report. The report covers a range of topics, from media ownership to the rise of fact-checking, and it delivers a couple of new insights that I’d like to share with you.
The first is the rise of intolerant populism. Often seeded on social media, populism is a growing pressure on Asia’s news media. Journalists are unsure how to reconcile the dark side of people power with their professional instinct to reflect their audience’s viewpoints. At the same time, populism has cast the media as the enemy of the people. We all find ourselves in this new and concerning paradigm.
Pressures on press freedom, like we saw with the introduction of terrorism laws, are increasing.
We see governments capitalising on pandemic-related measures to quell the right to free speech or assembly. There is a trend towards expanded legal mechanisms to clamp down on journalists, with negative impacts for free expression across Asia.
And I’ll finish with the recent news that the first person charged under Hong Kong’s national security law has been found guilty of terrorism. It’s a landmark case with long-term implications for how the legislation reshapes Hong Kong society and freedom of expression there.
It’s troubling that eight years after my story inside West Papua we see students who were only months ago just that, students, happy living among their family and friends. But then they became independence leaders and now they are charged under terrorism laws and face years in prison.
Just who is deemed a “terrorist” is a question I think requires much more attention.
The world’s story is now an Asian story, and there is an enormous amount of opportunity and good news in this.
Now more than ever, journalists in the region are tasked with telling not only the stories of this Asian Century, but the story that will shape our world for generations to come.
How we enable journalists to access and tell that story will play a significant role in the health of our societies moving forward.