Two French journalists held without charge for the past 11 weeks in the Indonesian province of West Papua are due to be released today after they were convicted of breaking immigration laws to report on the notoriously media-shy area.
But there are concerns their conviction will only make it harder for foreign journalists to work in the province, where allegations of widespread human rights violations on behalf of the police and military on the Indigenous West Papuans continue.
Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat were given a two and a half month prison sentence last week, but have already served the term of their sentence.
Dandois and Bourrat were arrested on August 6 in the town of Wamena while filming a documentary for the Franco-German TV channel Arte. They were transported and detained in the capital of Jayapura.
Both journalists were on tourist visas and were arrested on immigration charges. It is extremely hard for foreign journalists to obtain a visa and many enter on tourist visas but risk deportation if they are uncovered.
Those who are granted a rare journalists visa are escorted under strict conditions.
Both journalists faced up to five years in jail for entering on tourist, rather than journalist visas. Prosecutors originally sought a four-month sentence during the trial.
When Dandois and Bourrat were arrested, local Papuan police told media there were doubts they were working as journalists, and were potentially looking at charges for subversion.
While both journalists will be released, human rights groups and media watchdogs have condemned their detention.
Human Rights Watch’s Phelim Kine said the journalists’ conviction indicated Indonesia will continue to exercise a “repressive chokehold” over West Papua.
“Indonesian police had hinted that Dandois and Bourrat, who were producing a documentary on the restive province for Franco-German Arte TV, might face “subversion” charges for allegedly filming members of the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM),” Mr Kine said in a statement.
“But the rhetoric masked the government’s anger that the two journalists had run afoul of its decades-old policy of preventing foreign media scrutiny of Papua. That policy makes it nearly impossible for journalists to report freely from the province
“Obstructions to foreign media access include requiring foreign reporters to get special official permission to visit the island.
“The government rarely approves these applications or else delays processing, hampering efforts by journalists and independent groups to report on breaking news events. Journalists who do get official permission are invariably shadowed by official minders, who strictly control their movements and access to interviewees.
“The government justifies its restrictions on media access as a necessary security precaution due to the ongoing conflict with the small and poorly organised OPM.”
Reporters Without Borders welcomed the release of the journalists, but said they should never have been convicted for doing legitimate reporting.
“It is a big relief to know that Dandois and Bourrat will soon be released,” the group’s secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.
“Any other outcome would have set a terrible precedent for media freedom in Indonesia. We stress that, according to the principles of international law, they did not commit any crime by courageously undertaking their investigative reporting in Indonesia.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists echoed those concerns.
"Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat should never have been jailed for immigration violations," said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz.
"The conviction and sentencing call attention to local authorities' sensitivity to scrutiny, and could intimidate journalists who seek to shine a light on Indonesia's restive provinces."
It is notoriously difficult for foreign journalists to gain access to the province, which has been under Indonesian control since the late 60s.
The media ban and the reported intimidation of local journalists and sources has meant recurring allegations of human rights violations against the ethnically Melanesian Indigenous population are largely left off the international radar.
The new Indonesia President Joko Wikodo has indicated he will lift the media ban in West Papua. He was inaugurated on the same day as the trial.
There were also hopes the new President might influence Australia’s foreign policy, which has been consistently supportive of Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua.
Earlier this month the Senate passed a motion proposed by Greens Senator Richard Di Natale calling on the Australian government to request the release of Ms Bourrat and Mr Dandois.
The motion passed following technical amendments from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s office.
“This motion goes to two specific issues,” Senator Di Natale told the upper house.
“One is the issue of journalism and journalism right around the world being under attack. We have recently seen the issue of the Australian journalist Peter Greste incarcerated in Egypt after a show trial but we cannot advocate for people like Peter Greste and stay silent on the issue of the arbitrary detention of journalists in West Papua like the two French journalists who were doing nothing wrong other than reporting the truth.”
Senator Di Natale told New Matilda earlier this month it was a “huge shock” that the government had decided to back the motion.
But it is doubtful whether this would signal any significant shift in policy.
The journalists’ lawyer Aristo Pangaribuan told Reporters Without Borders that while the release was good news “legally speaking it isn’t”.
“This judgment sets a precedent which might be used by the authorities in the future to justify surveillance or arrests of foreign journalists in the region.”
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