Two French journalists imprisoned for more than two months in the Indonesian province of West Papua with no charge are facing court today, on the same day of the inauguration of the incoming President Joko Widodo.
The journalists – Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrate, from the French-German Arte Channel – have been jailed without charge since August 6 this year.
There are concerns they will be charged with espionage, but formal charges will not be laid until they are brought to court later today.
A local fixer was also arrested with the journalists, and there are concerns for the safety of locals with whom they came into contact.
Dandois and Bourrate were arrested for abusing the conditions of their tourism visa to enter the notoriously media-shy province of West Papua, where foreign media is largely banned.
But while foreign journalists are often detained for a few hours or a day, and then deported, the two French journalists are a different case, with the Papuan police spokesperson Sulistyo Pudjo alleging to media that the journalists “were part of an effort to destabilise Papua”, according to Human Rights Watch.
The international advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has consistently maintained the two journalists have been detained illegally. They were engaging in legitimate reporting “covering the living conditions of the local population and separatist demands”.
The trial is beginning on the same day as the inauguration of Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, who has signalled a willingness to open up West Papua to foreign media.
On the weekend he gave an interview to Fairfax media, where he said he wanted to “give special attention to West Papua”.
Mr Joko was the first Indonesian presidential candidate to campaign in the province, and although many West Papuans boycotted the elections, he gained an estimated 70 per cent of the vote.
Human Rights Watch’s Indonesian representative Andreas Harsono told New Matilda in the lead up to the inauguration that the trial of the two journalists was largely a case of politics.
“My speculation is this case is a challenge to Joko,” Mr Harsono told New Matilda.
“There is a clearing house that meets every week at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to screen all applicants to go to Papua – they have been doing it for 50 years. It is entrenched. They have an interest to keep journalists out of Papua. Why should this new President end that?
“Once Jokowi’s in power, if they have not been tried, it is very likely for Jokowi or his team to interfere. That’s why they want to speed up the trial.
“As long as they are under the police or the immigration, they are basically still under the executive branch of government. Once they go to trial, and there is a verdict, it’s in another territory.”
Foreign minister for the Federal for the Republic of West Papua Jacob Rumbiak says Mr Joko would have trouble making an impact in Papua because of the weight of the party machine.
“The Indonesian state demands absolute loyalty from its citizens, and its institutions have always been charged with defending its territorial integrity,” Mr Rumbiak said.
“In the service of those imperatives, anything the international community would consider illegal has always been quietly legalised.
“The machine behind Widodo’s election was Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP Party. Why would she allow him to betray her father’s success?”
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 the media ban.
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