'Cameras, not weapons': young Papuans denounce the exploitation of their homeland

These images from the website Papuan Archive show the local population affected by the clashes between rebels and soldiers in Nguda.
These images from the website Papuan Archive show the local population affected by the clashes between rebels and soldiers in Nguda.

Residents of Papua, the easternmost province of Indonesia, have been fighting for decades to defend their rights and preserve their homeland against business interests, which seek to exploit the terrain for minerals and transform it into vast palm oil plantations. Until recently, there has been little coverage about the conflict simmering between Papua’s armed separatist groups and the Indonesian authorities, but that’s about to change. Our Observer has launched a new site called Papuan Archive, which gathers and verifies information about violence in Papua.

It is extremely hard for NGOs and journalists to obtain access to the region. In 2014, two French journalists were imprisoned for ten weeks after they tried to pass as tourists.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both NGOs that champion human rights, say the situation in Papua is worrying.

"The grim reality is that journalists are still being blocked from reporting on the ground," HRW wrote last year, adding that these restrictions also applied to researchers and UN representatives. Amnesty has called Papua Indonesia’s “black hole” in terms of human rights.

"We want to give Papuans a platform to denounce human and environmental rights violations”

Wensislaus Fatubun, a filmmaker from Papua, wanted to let the world know about what was happening in his homeland. After gaining inspiration from websites developed in Syria, Myanmar and East Timor, Fatubun began setting up his own website, Papuan Archives, where he gathers and catalogues information about human and environmental rights violations.

Fatubun has built a team of volunteers across the province who record their own images, and also works to verify images and videos about the conflict.


Our main goal is to document human and environmental rights violations in Papua. Our website is already live with about 30 posts, but we are preparing for our official launch in December 2019. We want to give Papuans a platform where they can document these abuses and make the world aware of what is happening here, while also protecting their safety. We’ve built up a network of about 60 young people, many of whom live in rural, isolated areas.

"Many of our contributors have to walk for several days to get to a place with Internet connection"


When we can, we give these young people smartphones and credit so they can share the images that they record. We’ve received some external funding but much of this is paid for using our own money. The problem is that many of our contributors live several days walk from a place with an Internet connection.


According to statistics provided by the government, the ICT development index (which analyses communities' access to information and communication technologies) was just 2.41/10 in Papua, compared to 7.41 in the capital, Jakarta, in 2016. By comparison, the ICT development index was 8.98 in Iceland in 2017 and 2.38 in Cameroon.


For this technical reason, we struggle to publish the images quickly, especially since we take the time to verify each photo before publication.


"Corroborating the information"


Our verification process depends on the type of content that our members send us. If it is a video, for example, then we will check the metadata carefully to make sure that what the person told us matches with the information saved in the file [Editor’s note: for example, the name of the recording device, the date or the location]. We usually interview as many people as we can to corroborate the information, including the victims, their families, the police and the authorities. If a potential victim is seen in a video, we also ask for their permission before posting it.

We feel that we have succeeded when we manage to bring organisations and the police to the same table to discuss a specific incident. When opposing viewpoints confront one another, the truth usually comes out.


A database under construction


The site catalogues information and images in a database, which includes different categories. As of early March, 26 reports were listed on the site, and the categories with the largest number of entries were “torture”, “extrajudicial killings”, “freedom of speech and opinion” and “racial discrimination.”

The specific location of each alleged violation is also marked on a map, allowing a reader to see the distribution of incidents across the 420,000 square kilometres that make up Papua.

In late February, the team working at Papuan Archives published a special report on a 17-year-old Papuan who was tortured by police with a snake while in their custody on February 6.

>> Read on The Observers: Interrogation using a snake: The torture method Indonesian police use against Papuans

Don't fall for rumours spread by activists

The site also published a video showing the effects on civilians of clashes between armed separatist groups and soldiers in Nguda.

Read Papuan Archives' investigation into these images. 

Recently, Papuan Archives also debunked a widespread rumour that the Indonesian army had used chemical weapons in Nguda.

Many influential Papuans on social media spread this rumour, sometimes sharing photos allegedly showing chemical weapons being used in the region. Some media outlets followed suit, including the respected weekly Australian publication, the Saturday Paper, which published an article called "Exclusive: Chemical weapons dropped on Papua.”

The photos that were meant to provide proof of these attacks fell into two categories: people with serious burns or empty munitions cartridges. Several experts who specialise in verifying images of war and conflict for the investigative network bellingcat identified the kinds of munitions used.


This misleading tweet was much more widely shared than the tweet by Nick Waters of bellingcat, who sought to correct the error. 

"Hi, these munitions seem to be expended cases for 40 mm grenades, an HEDP round, a smoke grenade with a non-explosive fill (it produce[s] smoke but [does] not explode) and a container for a vehicle launched smoke projector. I must stress that none of these are chemical weapons," Nick Waters, an expert with bellingcat, posted on Twitter on January 25.

"We also researched these rumours and spoke to people on the ground. It was immediately clear to us that they were unfounded,” Fatubun said.


We are very careful when it comes to the rumours that circulate in activist circles. If we make a mistake and publish one of these images, then we will lose all credibility.

That’s why we created rules and a guidebook for the young recruits who document what is happening in their villages. Photos and videos have incredible power and we will use cameras, not weapons, in our fight to end injustice here.

This article was written by Liselotte Mas (@liselottemas).