At about 10:30 pm on the night of April 30, Guntur Fonataba, a 27-year-old medical student in Jayapura, the capital of the Indonesian province of Papua, was working on his homework when the internet suddenly went out. He went to bed, hoping to pick up his work in the morning, but the network hadn’t been restored. Weeks later, it still hasn’t been.
“Since the disruption, I can not even send patient records in short messages directly to my supervisor. It always fails,” he told Rest of World. “All the doctors in the hospital that I am working in are also complaining of the same.”
The Indonesian government said on May 1 that the outage was due to a broken underwater cable. Telkom, the telecommunications conglomerate that operates the line, said it would take a month to repair the connection. But activists and experts dispute this excuse, arguing that the blackout is more likely to be a deliberate act aimed at preventing the province’s long-running pro-independence movement from organizing against the government, something the authorities have done repeatedly over the past few years.
“It connects to the latest security situation in West Papua,” said Damar Juniarto, the executive director of the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (Safenet), a Bali-based NGO. “This is a pattern.”
The blackout came in the middle of a new cycle of violence in Papua. Last November, Yeremia Zanambani, a priest from the highland district of Intan Jaya, was killed, allegedly by the Indonesian military. In revenge, West Papuan rebels killed an army intelligence chief and a 16-year-old boy who was accused of being a spy for the state. The Indonesian government deployed 400 battle hardened-troops to the region, and designated the rebels a terrorist group. Hundreds of villagers in the highlands fled to the city for safety.
Internet blackouts and bandwidth throttling — reducing the capacity of a network — are now a regular part of the Indonesian government’s playbook for dealing with dissent. A previous blackout, in 2019, was declared illegal by a Jakarta court. Since then, the region has been affected by eight more localized blackouts and incidents of bandwidth throttling, including one in February which took place when the network in Intan Jaya was restricted after another shooting. That area’s network has yet to be restored.
Before the April shutdown, journalists and activists said they faced intimidation online and in person. Victor Mambor, a veteran Papuan journalist, was doxxed and had his car damaged. A fake message from a made-up religious organization was circulated on social media, condemning the pro-independence rebels; another claiming to be from the human rights group Papua Legal Aid falsely reported that two teachers had been murdered by the separatists.
Activists across Indonesia have previously faced similar harassment. The fact that the campaign of intimidation began just before the blackout has convinced Damar at Safenet that the outage is political in nature. “That’s when we concluded that this is not usual and not only a disruption caused by disaster,” he said.
Damar said that a broken cable is an unlikely explanation, because the same line that supplies internet to Jayapura also connects the island of Biak. Biak is still online, which means the issue isn’t upstream, he said.
Asked for comment, Dedy Permadi, spokesperson for Kominfo, the Indonesian ministry of telecoms, sent Rest of World a press release claiming that “natural factors” had caused a cable breakdown. The network operator Telkom had not responded to requests for comment as of press time.
The blackout has caused public facilities in Jayapura to shut down, including the hospital, which had to suspend services because administrative data systems were down, though limited service has since resumed.
Government offices and local media outlets also had to close. “The internet is blank, phone signals are interrupted,” said Lucky Ireeuw, Chief Editor of Cendrawasih, one of the largest newspapers in the region.
Due to a surge in COVID-19 cases in Jayapura, most public schools switched to online learning before the blackout. The internet disruption meant that schools had to return to in-person teaching, which is risky as West Papua has limited access to health quality health care, especially in highland areas. Since the internet went off, 32-year-old Maria Tilde Nay has transitioned from setting her children up for Zoom classes to bringing her daughter to school. “Immediately, the teacher set up a face to face [class],” she told Rest of World. She is worried about the risk to her and her family, she said, but she has no choice.
Whether the blackout will have the intended effect of quelling dissent is unclear. However, the disruptions have made ordinary West Papuans angry and suspicious. Few people are buying the official explanation.
“People are upset. They gather in the traditional market and the city’s center, talking about why the internet is cut,” Guntur, the medical student, said. “They believe the broken underwater cable does not cause the blackout, but the latest security situation in the highlands.”