Arrest Of French Journos Endangers Lives Of West Papuans


Up to 50 West Papuans could have been endangered following the arrest of two French journalists in the Indonesian province of West Papua earlier this month, as international protests calling on their release continue.

Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat were arrested on August 6 while filming a documentary for the Franco-German TV channel Arte. They are employed by the production company Memento.

According to Reporters Without Borders, they were arrested in the town of Wamena and transported to the capital of Jayapura, where they are still detained.

Dandois and Bourrat were on tourist visas and were originally arrested on immigration charges, which would have led to deportation. There were concerns those charges would likely be upgraded to subversion or makar (crimes against the state).

New Matilda understands it is now likely they will be charged with espionage, although in Indonesia, charges are not formally laid until a trial commences.

If espionage charges are laid, it will be one of the very rare instances of this occurring throughout Indonesia.

Further complicating matters, New Matilda understands Bourrat was carrying a service passport obtained while working for the French government in Tel Aviv, Israel. But both were in West Papua working as journalists, Reporters Without Borders says.

Reporters Without Borders released a statement earlier this month calling their detention illegal and urging their immediate release.

The two journalists were filming a wide range of issues of the economic and social impacts of Indonesian occupation over the ethnically Melanesian and resource rich province, but were caught in the company of armed separatists.

West Papua police told Fairfax earlier this month they could not “prove” the two were journalists and said they were caught filming the exchange of bullets between separatists and the members of the OPM (Free Papua Movement).

There have been a series of protests in Europe, Australia and Papua New Guinea calling on the Dandois and Bourrat to be released.

Three West Papuans were also arrested in the company of the journalists, and their fixer and translator is still being detained amidst concerns for his safety.

West Papua Media Alerts’ journalist Nick Chesterfield has also raised concerns about the safety of up to 50 other West Papuans who may have been compromised because of Indonesian surveillance of the two journalists.

Mr Chesterfield told the ABC recently: “The Indonesians are using the data that they gained from notes and communications from Valentine and Thomas and we do know that they were using encrypted communications.

“We also know that a lot of text messages were intercepted. The Indonesians got hold of almost all of their footage and they've certainly been reviewing that footage in order to identify people to go after.

“At this point we estimate 35 to 50 people may have been directly compromised, but the numbers could increase."

Chair of the West Papuan National Committee Victor Yiemo, who was recently released from a year-long prison sentence after Indonesian authorities accused him of treason, told the ABC of the urgency of allowing a free international press access to the region.

“We have to communicate with the police in Papua that they have to, they have to release the international journalists,” Yiemo told the ABC from Jayapura

“We always meet international journalists who come to West Papua and then we guide them. We always get into trouble because we have good relations with them when they come here.”

He told the ABC the situation only highlighted the daily dangers faced by the local population.

“They get arrested every day for their freedom of expression. So it's not only the international journalists. This is the situation in West Papua that all the people, the activists, are terrorised and intimidated by Indonesian police in West Papua now,” he said.

West Papua has been under Indonesian rule since the farcical ‘Act of Free Choice’, commonly referred to as ‘The Act of No Free Choice’ was passed in 1969. It followed the withdrawal of the Dutch in the 1960s. 

About 1,000 Papuans out of a population of 800,000 were hand-picked to vote, with concerns they were threatened or coerced into voting for the province to come under Indonesia.

Since then there have been constant concerns over human rights violations in the province and brutal and violent crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations. Activists have been jailed for raising the prohibited Morning Star flag.

The human rights violations in the province have remained largely hidden from the outside world, partly due to a strict media ban. Indonesia does not allow foreign journalists or media outlets into the country.

When news does get out, it’s predominately due to the dangerous work of citizen journalists on the ground, and the underfunded but thriving West Papua Media Alerts, headed by Chesterfield.

Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo promised to allow journalists into West Papua during his election campaign.

“Why not? It’s safe here in Papua,” he told journalists in June.

“There’s nothing to hide.”

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.