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West Papua, a province within the Southeast Asian country of Indonesia, is receiving international news coverage following the sensational kidnapping of a commercial pilot. Philip Mehrtens, a New Zealander, was taken hostage by members of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), who promised his freedom and safety in exchange for West Papua’s independence from Indonesia.
Wedged between Indonesia and the neighbouring independent country of Papua New Guinea, the people of West Papua have struggled to gain their independence from Indonesia for decades. The Indonesian government has so far refused to give into any of the OPM’s demands; hundreds of thousands of Indigenous West Papuans have died since the conflict began, which has already spanned hundreds of years. Recent clashes between military forces and armed OPM members to retrieve Mehrtens have resulted in several deaths on both sides and a public relations campaign by the Indonesian army, marking a new escalation.
Without context, this decision by the OPM to capture an innocent civilian appears both extreme and unacceptable. However, mainstream Western coverage of this story thus far has not attempted to understand the West Papuan perspective. This biased representation of ongoing events, and dismissiveness toward the OPM’s cause, demonstrates that greater media attention to the conflict is needed.
How West Papua Was Left Behind
The island of New Guinea, which consists of West Papua and Papua New Guinea, was formally incorporated into the Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia during the 19th century. This group of islands, collectively named the Dutch East Indies, would later become most of what is now Indonesia following the Second World War.
Throughout its decades-long struggle, the Indonesian independence movement firmly aimed to include all the territories that made up the former Dutch East Indies once they became independent in 1947. These plans included the West Papua territory as part of an imagined country of Indonesia. With the Dutch maintaining control over West Papua and preparing it for separate independence, a rift began to form between the two regions — West Papua desired independence under the encouragement of the Dutch, and Indonesia turned to the United States for support.
The disagreement over who West Papua belonged to neglected the actual desires of Indigenous West Papuans — the Dutch, American, and Indonesian governments acted out of their interests during the height of the Cold War. The New York Agreement of 1962 between Indonesia and the US raised the West Papuan question to the United Nations. As the UN discussed West Papua’s future, the US slowly and secretly supported Indonesia’s transformation to its New Order. This repressive, authoritarian regime aimed to modernize the country — no matter the cost — allowed the United States to spread anti-communism conveniently in the Cold War era.
Throughout this transition, the genocide of over 500,000 Indonesians happened as the country turned from a diverse democracy into a military dictatorship. Ultimately, Indonesia occupied West Papua despite a vote in 1969 that was widely criticized for fraud. It remains part of Indonesia as a special province until today, with consistent uprisings by its inhabitants ever since.
Terrorism and the OPM: A Glaring Issue With Mainstream Media
Breaking news reporting sidelines necessary context about stories like this issue due to its nature, favouring shorter, more easily digestible narratives. Given that the historical summaries in these reports are often brief, the choice of language within them is worth looking at more closely. Specifically, in their efforts to be balanced or unbiased about Indonesia and the OPM, publications like CNN subtly manipulate how historical facts become presented to their audience.
Vague references to “unrest” or the “controversial” presence of the Indonesian military disregard the hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Papuans tortured, executed, and killed since the occupation. Still, most articles fail to mention a key inciting incident: a law passed by the Indonesian government in June of 2022 aimed at further subdividing the Papuan region provoked widespread Papuan protests and their violent suppression by military and police forces. This escalation that has happened since last year clarifies the need to raise awareness. Downplaying Papuan suffering at the hands of the Indonesian state may not have been intended, but it is an unfortunate outcome when mainstream media does not include these important contextual elements.
The frequent reference to the OPM’s status as a terrorist organization by the Indonesian government, while a valid point, should immediately signal readers to look deeper. Given the far-reaching negative consequences of the so-called war on terror, which has conveniently allowed Western countries to drum up public support for brutal military interventions over the smallest provocations, it is inexcusable for a modern publication to use the word without proper clarification. In a media landscape where organizations compete for consumer attention, using a specific term to create a frenzy is completely irresponsible.
If this alone was not enough, using the word terrorism is also a highly effective way of shutting down nuanced discussions and sympathies a broader audience may have for the cause. Though their methods define terrorist acts, which involve the use of high-profile violence against civilians, the massive increase in coverage surrounding the Free Papua movement as a result of the kidnapping only further proves that drastic measures were necessary to reach a wider audience. By no means do the OPM have immunity to criticism for how they have approached exposing their struggles. When sensationalized and overall negative coverage is encouraged to attract readers and get clicks, it does send a message that these extreme actions are needed to get any visibility.
Overall, this kidnapping demonstrates that the average Western reader cares little about international affairs outside of how they concern their immediate daily lives. While the West cannot expect to care about the intricate details of every single country and its internal conflicts, it is difficult not to be cynical about the reality that once a Westerner is in danger, this story is newsworthy. Not when protests occurred, the land was carved up, or military officers and other OPM members had died, but only when mainstream media had the headline that it wanted.
All around, many countries were formed by including some people and excluding others. Understanding that these borders are not fixed or holy is an important first step in recognizing and respecting the diverse individuals who live in a culturally rich country like Indonesia, including West Papua. To expect everyone to agree on and wish to integrate into a country is unrealistic. In most cases, either borders were created by colonizers to suit their economic interests or drawn on a map without much thought. Separatism, in this context, can be just as valid as integration. To cast an entire movement as terrorist for engaging in violence is very hypocritical, as it unfairly burdens oppressed populations to act civilly. How can West Papuans be expected to address their concerns through the same channels that have failed to consider them up until now?
Reflections on the Depiction of Separatism in the Modern Era
This flashpoint of Western coverage of the West Papuan struggle is enough to raise concerns about how we understand our news cycle. While breaking news should be brief and straightforward, readers should hold mainstream media’s intentions and content to a higher standard. Sensationalism and the use of dramatic and coded language — like terrorism — have reached a point where both encourage violent acts as the only way to garner a Western audience.
Second, regardless of their methods, West Papuans deserve the dignity of being heard and represented appropriately. They were denied their legal right to a free vote on independence up until now. The lack of unbiased coverage of their fight to separate from Indonesia has certainly not helped them change this reality. How mainstream media delegitimizes the Indigenous West Papuans’ experiences should also prompt readers to question whose ancestral land they currently reside on and the political decisions made for it to become what it is today.
Edited by Chelsea Bean