BBC journalist ordered to leave Indonesia's Papua over tweets

JAKARTA (Reuters) - A BBC journalist on a reporting trip to cover a health and malnutrition crisis in Indonesia’s easternmost area of Papua was forced to leave the province after the country’s military said tweets she sent on her trip had “hurt soldiers’ feelings”.

Indonesian soldiers along with a local resident unload food and medical aid in Ewer, Asmat District, in the remote region of Papua, Indonesia January 29, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Picture taken January 29, 2018. Antara Foto/M Agung Rajasa/ via REUTERS

Papua is one of Indonesia’s poorest areas and President Joko Widodo after coming to power in 2014 pledged to speed up its development and ease media restrictions in the area, where there has been a simmering secessionist movement.

But while investment has risen and efforts made to address some human rights concerns, activists say foreign journalists continue to be blocked or face obstacles when trying to report.

Indonesia’s military said in a statement that a tweet sent by Rebecca Henschke, BBC Indonesia’s editor, had “hurt the feelings of TNI (Indonesian military) personnel” involved in relief efforts in the Asmat area.

Henschke had tweeted a photo of supplies on her personal Twitter account, adding: “This is the aid coming in for severely malnourished children in Papua - instant noodles, super sweet soft drinks and biscuits.”

Papua military spokesman Colonel Muhammad Aidi said: “(The food and drink) that she took the picture of at the speedboat pier are not donations or aid. It was merchandise from merchants that was incidentally there.” Aidi also described two other tweets as misleading.

Henschke, a Jakarta-based Australian citizen, later took down the photograph and tweeted: “Adding important NOTE: Other sources say this is NOT aid but normal supplies. Huge relief effort underway here.”

Indonesia has deployed additional military personnel to help in Asmat, where at least 61 infants are reported to have died from malnutrition and diseases such as measles.

Henschke had asked to be allowed to continue covering the story during questioning by security forces over her tweets on Friday, but was escorted to the city of Timika and held by immigration, the military statement said.

Henschke declined to comment, but a BBC spokesperson said via email: “A BBC team on a deployment to Papua province has now returned to Jakarta. They had the necessary documentation and the authorities were aware of their visit. The BBC respects local laws wherever it operates.”

Many Papuans, who are predominantly Christian and a minority in Muslim-majority Indonesia, criticize Jakarta for neglecting Papua and instead being too focused on the densely-populated island of Java.

Catholic priest and rights activist John Jonga blamed the crisis on a lack of vaccinations and a switch from more nutritious tubers to rice as a staple food. Some of the forest-dwelling Asmat are also reported to be increasingly relying on instant food or energy drinks.

Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch said Henschke’s treatment showed pledges to open up Papua had not materialised.

“She had her travel permit - the only Indonesian area where foreign journalists need to get a permit to visit - and still got intimidation for a single tweet,” said Harsono.

A presidential spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Editing by Mark Heinrich