When Assa Aso, 31, woke up on the morning of December 1, he went straight to the common area of the student dormitory in the Waena district of Jayapura, where he has lived for most of the past decade. Aso is a photographer, a filmmaker, and an activist for the National Committee for West Papua (KNPB), a group that campaigns for the independence of the province on the western fringe of the Indonesian archipelago. Aso and his friends greeted one another — “Happy Independence Day!” — and played music by a band called Mambesak, whose “Nyanyian Sunyi” (“The Silent Song”) has become an anthem of the Papuan independence movement since its lead singer, Arnold Ap, was shot dead while in the custody of Indonesian special forces in 1984. 

Each year, campaigners for Papuan independence celebrate December 1 to mark the day in 1961 when community leaders declared independence from the Netherlands. That independence was never recognized internationally, and instead the region, which borders Papua New Guinea, was ceded to Indonesia, which has governed it ever since. The Jakarta government has at times violently suppressed separatist groups, which have carried on a low-level insurgency for decades.

On December 1, supporters of independence normally hold demonstrations, waving the Morning Star flag of Papua — a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in jail. These demonstrations often lead to mass arrests, and sometimes they lead to deaths. The spectacle is meant for a wider audience. To commemorate the day, organizations like KNPB pump out images and videos on social media, encouraging supporters of the cause around the world to draw attention to the ongoing struggle by posting their own pictures and messages of solidarity. When crackdowns happen, they are on the ground to collect evidence that can be broadcast to a global audience to challenge the official accounts provided by the police and the military, which are often uncritically reproduced in the mainstream press.

“We have studied digital movements,” Aso said. “We realize that it’s not enough to encourage people to join the protest but also to let people outside know what we are doing, and then they feel involved. … When the news spreads to the international community, we feel satisfied.” 

Last year, the novel coronavirus pandemic prevented mass rallies from taking place, but still, military helicopters buzzed over the city, and Indonesian troops were on standby. With less freedom to protest on the streets, activists had to rely more than ever on digital channels to get the message out.

Aso used to work as a media specialist for the KNPB, and now he advises his younger colleagues on how to use social media to organize meetings and protests, how to make recordings of demonstrations, and how to stay safe. To maximize their coverage and alert one another to incidents of violence, the KNPB and other activist organizations communicate through a single group on the secure messaging app Signal.

But just as the government has been able to crack down on supporters of independence on the streets, it has also brought its repression into digital spaces, trying to prevent activists and journalists from documenting and distributing evidence of human rights abuses. In September 2019, Aso was arrested alongside a dozen others for encouraging activists to share images of students shot by police during a protest. He served a total of 10 months in jail for inciting unrest and was released in August. As well as arrest and intimidation, Papua’s pro-independence activists have to contend with sophisticated disinformation campaigns and coordinated attacks by troll farms. And when they most need the international community to see what is happening in West Papua, the Indonesian government deploys a tactic now commonly used by authoritarian regimes — it turns off the internet entirely.

The KNPB is the largest indigenous youth movement in West Papua and among the best organized, with a membership of several hundred thousand, according to its leaders. Founded in 2008, it focuses on nonviolent protests in support of independence. For the past decade, it has also been one of Papua’s most influential voices on social media, using Facebook and Instagram to keep the movement in the public eye. 

The KNPB began using social media in around 2008, Aso said, at first to try to drum up support locally and to get people to join their rallies. It studied how other movements had used the internet to build momentum for protests and tried to adapt it for Papua. “We had intensive discussions and read many references, and then we taught our younger members about the internet and how to report from the field,” Aso said. 

In 2016, the group used Facebook to bring thousands of people to a protest that almost shut down the city of Jayapura. 

Starting in 2010, the KNPB started to produce content aimed at a wider audience, across Indonesia and abroad. “We had this idea that, aside from protesting, we need to let the people outside [Papua] notice what we are doing and feel involved,” Aso said. 

The KNPB has created a sophisticated network for gathering and disseminating information. Some members work on the road, collecting imagery and videos and reporting on events. They send their material back to colleagues who turn it into stories and social posts, which are then translated into Bahasa Indonesia and English and shared with other members via a Facebook Messenger group. These are then distributed more widely on Facebook, where the group’s members and supporters try to maximize their reach.

The Indonesian government has thrown substantial resources into trying to shape the global narrative about West Papua through digital channels.

The group has learned to adapt its messaging so that it resonates with global audiences. After the Black Lives Matter movement made international headlines in May, the KNPB and other sympathetic organizations began to use the hashtag #PapuanLivesMatter, drawing parallels between racism and police violence in the U.S. and the routine discrimination and aggression faced by Papuans in Indonesia. In June, the hashtag trended in several countries and was reported on by outlets in the U.K., U.S., and Australia, where some BLM marchers displayed Morning Star flags in solidarity.

Sensitive to the power of public diplomacy, the Indonesian government has tried to keep a lid on dissent in West Papua since 2016 “through censorship, disinformation, and internet shutdowns,” says Damar Juniarto, executive director of the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet), a Bali-based NGO. 

Websites, including those run by the Free West Papua pressure group, led by the exiled political leader Benny Wenda, have been blocked since 2016 for supporting separatism. Independent news sites, including Suara Papua, a local outlet, have been periodically blocked, most recently after a surge in protests in 2019.

Other sites, including that of Tabloid Jubi, a leading newspaper in the region, have been targeted by distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks, which flood servers with access requests, causing them to overload. In October 2019, these attacks finally brought Tabloid Jubi’s site down entirely; according to Victor Mambor, the paper’s founder, it had to be rebuilt. “Now we use dedicated secure hosting from overseas,” he told Rest of World.

As well as censoring opposing viewpoints, the Indonesian authorities have run disinformation operations online. In January 2020, Reuters reporters found that a number of sites purporting to be independent news outlets and parroting official versions of events, had been established by an Indonesian Army soldier, some of which were registered to the army’s regional command center in Jakarta.

Pro-government trolls have attacked supporters of Papuan independence. When the prime minister of Vanuatu raised concerns about human rights abuses in West Papua at the United Nations in September 2020, Indonesian users — many believed to be bots — trolled the official Instagram account of the South Pacific Ocean nation with racist comments. The Vanuatu Tourism Office, which ran the account, said in a statement that it believes the comments to have been a “coordinated inauthentic [social media] activity.” 

The Indonesian government has thrown substantial resources into trying to shape the global narrative about West Papua through digital channels. But when things on the ground look like they are teetering out of control, authorities have shown themselves willing to take dramatic action.

On the morning of August 28, 2019, a crowd of people gathered in front of the government offices in West Papua’s Deiyai Regency to perform the Waita, a traditional war dance that involves moving in circles, mimicking the sound of birds, and carrying bows and arrows. Santon Tekege, a 34-year-old pastor, was among them, having driven the half hour to Deiyai from his church in the village of Enarotali in the neighboring Paniai Regency, to join what was supposed to be a peaceful rally against racism.

Protests had begun nearly two weeks before, after Papuan students living in Surabaya, a city on the Indonesian island of Java — where the capital, Jakarta, is located — were racially abused by nationalist vigilantes. When the students demonstrated against their treatment, the police responded with tear gas. Videos of the incident spread on social media, sparking huge rallies in Papua, some of which turned violent. Protesters blocked roads; others burned public buildings.

On August 28, according to Tekege, the activists’ intention was to hold a peaceful rally at the regent’s office while a meeting of high-level government, police, and military officials went on inside, but it descended into bloody chaos. First, police fired tear gas and live rounds to try to disperse the protesters. Then, at around 2 p.m., a car driven by a man in military uniform crashed into the crowd, killing a 17-year-old boy. One protestor fired a bow and arrow, killing the car’s driver. The vehicle’s four passengers, also wearing fatigues, rushed out and began shooting their rifles into the demonstration. Eight protesters were killed.

“I saw people being killed. I hid in the trees.”

“It was chaos,” Tekege said. “All the police and military [personnel] were suddenly shooting.”

Tekege, who had been near the front of the crowd, fled, heading for the jungle that surrounds Deiyai, along with others from his village. “I was crying,” he said. “I saw people being killed. I hid in the trees.” 

From the relative safety of the forest, he and other villagers began to document the event. Using their cell phones, they took photos and videos of those who had been injured as they waited to get a ride back to Enarotali. Many stayed in the forest for days or weeks, too afraid to go home, Tekege said.

Back in Deiyai, activists and journalists were struggling to get word out about the massacre. Since the protests began, the government had used “bandwidth throttling” — slowing down the internet — and periodic blackouts to limit protesters’ ability to organize and prevent information leaking out. A week earlier, on August 21, the internet across the province had been all but shut down, and cell phone networks heavily restricted.

“At first, it was throttling, but then it went down,” said Matheus Adadkiam, executive director of human rights organization ELSHAM Papua. 

Activist groups found it almost impossible to collect and distribute evidence of human rights abuses and violence against protesters. The United Liberation Movement for West Papua, a pro-independence coalition, normally collects photographs and videos from members spread across the territory and then passes them on to international media. After the August 28 massacre, it had to improvise in order to get information out. “[The internet] was totally shut down,” Markus Haluk, ULMWP’s executive director, said. “They also shut down the electricity at around the same time as they arrested the leaders of the protesters, usually at night.”

Some groups had to resort to extreme measures. Sebby Sambom, a spokesperson for the West Papua Liberation National Army, a rebel group, said its members smuggled information out across the border between West Papua and Papua New Guinea. He wouldn’t reveal the specifics of the route, saying only that the organization’s members went by road, by sea, and through the forests. “We were working hard, day and night, to send the photos,” he said.

However, in Jayapura, activists and journalists found connections that were still working at luxury hotels whose owners had paid for satellite internet service.

“There were two hotels, Grand ABE and Yasmin, which provided internet using satellite-based VSAT IP,” said Angela Flassy, chief editor of Tabloid Jubi. “We just had to buy the package there, but it was more expensive from the regular provider.” The paper’s journalists in the field filed their copy via SMS messages to a newsroom set up in the hotel, where editors could send the stories to their colleagues in Java to publish on the website.

There were some public access points to the internet too. Since in 2013, the Ministry of Communications and Informatics has been installing “hot spots” — internet stations in schools and churches — in remote areas of the Indonesian archipelago where the private sector has no commercial incentive to reach, such as Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo; East Nusa Tenggara, which borders Timor Leste; and West Papua. In February 2019, the government rented a satellite from a private company, Pasifik Satelit Nusantara, to connect some of these hot spots to the internet.

“Regardless [of national security issues], we have to build the infrastructure,” Anang Latif, the director general of BAKTI (Telecommunication and Information Accessibility Agency), the ministry that runs the program, told Rest of World. “We are aware that both West Papua rebels and the Indonesian military need signal. My job is merely providing the signal.”

One of these hot spots had been installed in Tekege’s church in Enarotali, and in August 2019, it was still live.

Using the hot spot in Enarotali, in the following days, Tekege and other villagers were able to send the photos and videos they had taken to journalists and activists, including the exiled Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman; Abeth You, a Tabloid Jubi reporter who was in Jayapura; and the chief editor of Suara Papua, Arnold Belau. 

The images that Tekege and the others sent of bodies and wounds contradicted the Indonesian government’s official line that news of the shootings was a hoax and showed that security forces had violently dispersed the protesters. The military later admitted that the shootings had happened, although they maintain that only two Papuans, along with one soldier, died.

Telkomsel internet access was restored fully in West Papua on September 11, 2019. 

In January 2020, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), SAFEnet, and the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), among other groups, filed a lawsuit against the government, claiming that the internet blackout was illegal. In June, the Jakarta State Administrative Court agreed. However, no one was punished, and the government merely had to pay the trial costs.

About two weeks after Tekege used the Enarotali hot spot to contact journalists, it was shut down. 

When Rest of World asked Latif, from BAKTI, about the hot spots, he denied that the ministry had switched off the signal. You, the reporter for Tabloid Jubi, said that the hot spot was completely inoperable when he was in Deiyai on December 1 last year. Jery ​​A. Yudianto, the head of the Papua Province Communication and Information Office, the Ministry of Communications’ regional branch, said his department is aware that the hot spot is out of service but has not been able to fix it. “It’s under Jakarta’s control,” he said.

On Independence Day 2020, Tekege stayed at his church. There were no large-scale rallies due to the pandemic, and Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, was quiet. Online, the celebrations continued, but once again, they were restricted. 

The Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua (FRI-WP), a pro-independence group, has been among the most active, posting images of the smaller protests for its more than 20,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, mostly in Bahasa Indonesia.

“We post about police and army repression toward West Papuan, hate speech against West Papuans, economic [inequality] in West Papua, the alternative history of West Papua, and Indonesians’ support to West Papua’s self-determination,” said Surya Anta, a spokesperson for FRI-WP. 

A week before the celebration, the FRI-WP lost access to its website and to its Twitter account. On November 26, FRI-WP’s social media team found that its Twitter account had been reported for misconduct by a large number of unknown users. They suspect that a bot network is to blame. Their Twitter account was restored after 24 hours, but they still cannot post to their website.

Although activists had been expecting another internet blackout in 2020, none came. The pandemic meant there was little need to keep people off the streets. However, on the ground, activists said, the internet was notably slower. SAFEnet received reports of internet throttling in early December but has been unable to confirm them. 

The risk of blackouts has not gone away. The Jakarta government has demonstrated that it now sees cutting off or limiting internet access as a way to suppress dissent. Journalists and activists know that the internet can be switched off at any time, and they are already planning for 2021.

“Our plan, this year, is, We are going to rent our own satellite,” Tabloid Jubi’s Victor Mambor said. “It maybe will cost money, but it’s better than not being able to send news. We know that we are the only media providing accurate information, so we have to get the story out.”