JAKARTA/LONDON (Reuters) - As Indonesia celebrated its National Heroes’ Day last year, official military social media accounts lavished praise on Corporal Yunanto Nugroho for the “myriad awards he has won in the field of IT.”
It was unusual acclaim for a low-ranking army computer operator. But Yunanto’s work is not confined to the usual mundane tasks of an information technology specialist.
Yunanto co-ordinates a network of websites facilitated and funded by the military that publishes pro-government propaganda under the guise of independent news, according to web registration records and Reuters interviews with website editors and a special forces intelligence officer.
The sites publish content that supports the conduct of the military and police in quashing a separatist uprising in the Indonesian provinces in Papua, a fight that has long been led by the country’s elite special forces, Kopassus.
Colonel Muhammad Aidi, an intelligence adviser to a Kopassus commander who bestowed an award on Yunanto in November, told Reuters the army computer operator had helped create and sustain many news websites as part of “military efforts” in partnership with civilian volunteers that included youths and media veterans who had approached the military to help.
Other armed forces personnel also helped the sites and the military financially supported the news portals, he added.
“The official armed forces websites cannot publish everything we do, so there are several media outlets that have been supporting us by publishing positive news as well as countering negative or hoax websites,” Aidi told Reuters in an interview.
Indonesia, an emerging democracy of nearly 270 million people with one of the world’s highest rates of internet use, is grappling with persistent covert online disinformation campaigns - both for the government and against it - that have disrupted elections and stoked sectarian tensions.
President Joko Widodo has railed against “hoaxes, false news and slander” but his military is also engaging in disinformation tactics, an examination of the website network by Reuters shows.
A spokesman for Widodo did not respond to requests for comment. Ali Mochtar Ngabalin, a presidential expert staff member, said the military was prohibited from working with non-state actors. “I do not believe the military is involved in funding online media to spread hoaxes,” he told Reuters.
Using software from DomainTools, a platform used by cybersecurity researchers to review historical web records, Reuters identified 10 websites presenting themselves as independent news outlets that were registered to a mobile phone number that was listed on Yunanto’s LinkedIn profile.
When Reuters contacted that number, Yunanto said it belonged to him and that he was in the military. After this short phone call and an exchange of text messages, Yunanto declined to respond to detailed questions sent to an email address he provided.
The 10 websites, some of which have been operating since mid-2017, are in the Indonesian language and carry names such as berita-indonesia.co.id (News-Indonesia), koranprogresif.co.id (Progressive Newspaper) and viralreporter5.com. They do not disclose their links to the military, and in recent months most of them have made their domain information private.
The websites publish uniformly positive coverage of government, military and police alongside articles that demonize government critics and human rights investigators. The subjects of some stories told Reuters the websites attributed invented quotes to them and published other falsehoods.
Lieutenant Colonel Zulhardie, the head of the army’s Jakarta-based information unit, of which Yunanto is a part, referred Reuters questions to the Indonesian military spokesman Sisriadi who did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
With a name that translates as “Our Papuan People’s News” and claiming 80,000 views per month, kitorangpapuanews.com is one of three of the military-sponsored websites that registered its address as the Media Center at Kodam Jayakarta, the army’s regional command headquarters based in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.
Yunanto works for the Kodam Jayakarta information unit that runs the Media Center where military personnel push out press releases and manage military web pages and social media accounts, according to articles on the headquarters’ website.
Kitorangpapuanews.com is devoted to pro-government news about Papua, where many of the region’s ethnic Melanesian population have agitated for independence for decades. Mass demonstrations have resulted in at least 40 deaths there this year.
In response to the recent unrest, the government has periodically shut down the internet in Papua and forbidden foreign journalists and some diplomats from visiting the area.
Papuan movie actor Benyamin Lagowan told Reuters he was falsely quoted in a 2017 kitorangpapuanews.com article that reported he made “scathing” remarks about Papuan journalist and advocate Victor Mambor. He never spoke to the news outlet and admired Mambor, he said.
Theo Hesegem, a human rights investigator in Papua, was denounced by kitorangpapuanews.com in a 2017 article that was accompanied by a photomontage framing him alongside a devil with fiery eyes. The story accused him of fabricating a report for the human rights group Tapol that found five civilians were shot during clashes between the military and armed Papuan separatists.
After the article appeared, Hesegem said he was approached by a police officer saying he was under investigation for producing fake news, a crime that carries a penalty of up to four years.
“I interviewed the victims and saw their bullet wounds,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview. The police investigation petered out after the rights investigator demanded police serve him with a formal summons, Hesegem said.
Reuters could not independently verify Hesegem’s account. A police spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Kitorangpapuanews.com does not identify its editorial team. It did not respond to Reuters questions. Aidi said he did not know who was behind the site.
As well as being promoted by popular military and government social media accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers, kitorangpapuanews.com material is heavily shared by a network of 20 Facebook and Twitter accounts. The accounts retweet each other’s posts and use profile photos or cartoons made to look like Papuan residents.
Some accounts describe themselves as “free Papua” activists but criticize advocates for Papuan self-determination, including prominent lawyer Veronica Koman.
The use of these social media accounts was a deliberate strategy to “confuse Papuan people,” said Koman. “In fact, it’s just propaganda.”
Top editors from two of the other sites in the network - Jesayas Simarmata from berita-indonesia.co.id and M. Ridhwan from koranprogressif.co.id - described how the military paid for advertising and for journalists to attend military events. Ridhwan said his website was paid by army bases across Indonesia.
The editors said further that Yunanto, who put their sites on a server and had access to them as the web administrator, uploaded articles to their sites, including content from kitorangpapuanews.com. One of those articles, which lambasted Koman, was published on nine other websites in November.
Simarmata said kitorangpapuanews.com was operated by the army’s Jakarta command headquarters.
Aidi from Kopassus said there was no need for the websites to disclose their ties to the armed forces. The military just gave money to the websites as informal “thank you” payments, he said.
Reporting by Tom Allard in JAKARTA and Jack Stubbs in LONDON; Additional reporting by Reuters Jakarta bureau; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Bill Rigby