Indonesia’s president and his information minister unlawfully ordered the blocking of internet services in the insurgency-stricken Papua region during deadly rioting and widespread anti-government protests last year, an Indonesian court ruled Wednesday.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Johnny G. Plate, the minister of communications and information technology, were named as the targets of a lawsuit lodged with the State Administrative Court by internet freedom group SAFEnet and the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) in November 2019.
The plaintiffs argued that a mobile data blackout imposed by Jokowi’s government during the riots in the far-eastern Papua and West Papua provinces, between August and September, violated people’s right to information.
“The decision taken by Defendants I and II was an unlawful act by the government or a government institution,” presiding judge Nelvy Christin said as she read out the unanimous verdict by a three-member panel, referring to Jokowi and Johnny.
The central government violated the law by imposing the internet blackout without declaring a state of emergency, as stipulated by a 1959 law on states of emergency, the panel found.
The judges also said any decision that limited people’s right to information should be made in accordance with the law and not merely based on the government’s discretion, according to reporting by the Jakarta Post.
The court found that the government blocked internet services in 54 cities and regencies across Papua and West Papua, from Aug. 21 through Sept. 4, 2019.
Officials said at that time that the blackout was intended to curb the spread of misinformation after protesters torched government buildings during anti-government rallies.
The lawsuit demanded that the government not take similar measures in the future in any part of the country. A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Muhammad Isnur, said the lawsuit initially demanded that the government publically apology for the blackout, but the judges said such a demand was unusual and requested that the plaintiffs drop it.
“Being found to have acted unlawfully is a blotch on the government. Could it have been that other government actions also violated the law?” Isnur told reporters.
Officials at the president’s office and the Communications Ministry did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews for comment. On Wednesday, neither the office nor the ministry issued any statements on the court ruling.
Amnesty International’s director in Indonesia, Usman Hamid, said the ruling could pave the way for Papuans to seek compensation from the government.
“With the decision, the Papuan people can file compensation claims because the president and the minister of communications and information are proven to have committed legal violations,” Usman told BenarNews.
He praised the judges, saying the verdict raised hopes for improving the human rights climate in Papua, where security forces have been accused of committing abuses for years.
“This is a very progressive decision. We need judges like that for Papua and Indonesia,” Usman added.
More than 40 people were killed during last year’s unrest, which was sparked by the perceived harsh and racist treatment of Papuan students by security forces and vigilante groups in Java, Indonesia’s most populous island and the seat of the central government in Jakarta.
Jakarta has blamed the separatist United Liberation Movement of West Papua and the National Committee for West Papua for the uprising, during which thousands of people joined protests calling for a vote on self-determination for the mainly Melanesian Papuan region.
Police arrested dozens of pro-referendum Papuan activists in the wake of the unrest, prompting the authorities to send thousands of additional police and troops to the region located at the far-eastern end of Indonesia.
In April, a court in Jakarta sentenced six activists to up to nine months in prison after finding them guilty of treason for participating in a 2019 protest that called for a referendum on self-determination in Papua.
The activists – Surya Anta, Ambrosius Mulait, Charles Kossay, Dano Tabuni, Arina Elopere and Isay Wenda – have since been freed because they had spent time in detention since August last year.
Meanwhile, seven other pro-independence Papuan activists are standing trial for treason in Balikpapan, a city in East Kalimantan province on Borneo Island.
An armed separatist insurgency has simmered for decades in Papua and West Papua, largely impoverished and underdeveloped provinces that make up one-fifth of Indonesia’s land mass, although only 5.9 million of Indonesia’s 270 million people live there.
The Papua region was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-administered ballot known as the Act of Free Choice. Many Papuans and rights groups said the vote was a sham because it involved only 1,000 people.