A report by the Pacific Media Centre’s Asia-Pacific Journalism student journalist Struan Purdie on West Papua media freedom.
Report – By Michael Bachelard in Jakarta and the PMC newsdesk in Auckland
The detention of two French journalists in the Indonesian region of West Papua has taken a dangerous new turn, with local police suggesting the pair were present at an exchange of gunfire with a pro-independence group and should be charged with subversion.
Documentary filmmaker Thomas Dandois and camera operator Valentine Bourrat have been in immigration detention in the restive province for more than a week after being caught doing journalist work on tourist visas. But police say the pair will soon be moved into the police lockup.
There is also an Australian connection, with West Papua police spokesman Sulistyo Pudjo saying the pair were taking ”orders” from an Australian, ”NC”. This can be revealed as the Melbourne-based Nick Chesterfield, who is editor of the independent media outlet West Papua Media and a partner of Pacific Media Watch.
Bourrat and Dandois were filming a documentary on the pro-independence movement in the province for the European TV channel Arte.
However, Sulistyo claimed: ”We can prove they are not journalists” because neither had an up-to-date press card.
He said they had ”planned to cover the exchange of bullets between [members of the armed pro-independence movement, the] OPM. Why would tourists do that?”
However, the Paris-based media freedom group Reporters Sans Frontieres and the International Federation of Journalists both issued media statements this week demanding their immediate release from custody.
According to RSF, the journalists were on a professional assignment:
Employed by Memento, a production company, they were doing a report on the Indonesian-ruled half of New Guinea for the Franco-German TV channel Arte.
Officially, they are being held for violating immigration regulations but the police say they are suspected of “promoting instability”.
Dandois’ fixer and interpreter was also arrested.
Reporters Without Borders regards their continuing detention as illegal.
Pacific Media Watch reported that a West Papuan teacher who was in contact with the pair had also been arrested.
The rhetoric represents a dangerous turn for the reporters. Simply working without a journalist visa in Indonesia usually leads to swift deportation, but talk of subversion, or ”makar” in Bahasa, could signal a dragged-out investigation, court case and possible imprisonment.
Foreign media access to West Papua is tightly controlled and restricted by the Indonesian government.
Adding to police suspicions, Bourrat worked in 2011 for the French government in Tel Aviv, Israel, and was carrying a French government passport dated from that time.
Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, has no diplomatic relationship with Israel, which is widely regarded with hostility and suspicion.
The first secretary at the French embassy in Jakarta, Thomas Biju-Duval, confirmed that Bourrat had worked as a government volunteer in Tel Aviv and still carried a ”service passport” from that time.
”She should have given it back, but she forgot to do that,” he said.
But he insisted that the pair were journalists.
”We provided all the documents to the authorities in Jakarta and Jayapura, and there is no doubt about their status as journalists,” Biju-Duval said.
Despite Sulistyo’s view, Biju-Duval said: ”The Indonesian authorities have received and accepted that information.”
Sulistyo said a number of text messages on the phones of Dandois and Bourrat showed they were taking ”orders” from Chesterfield, whose independent media operation is highly critical of Indonesian activities inside West Papua.
”Fortunately NC is in Australia, because if he was in Indonesia we’d arrest him,” Sulistyo said.
Chesterfield confirmed that West Papua Media had given advice to the French journalists ahead of their trip, as his organisation did to ”hundreds of journalists a year” about travelling to Papua.
The advice had included information about security and story ideas.
”What we were doing is not a crime under international law, and assisting journalists is a basic element of freedom of the press,” he said.
A blog post on a site favoured by Indonesian army members, militerindonesiamy.blogspot.com, suggested that Bourrat was a French government agent and involved in a ”transnational crime” relating to the ammunition.
West Papua Media reports: “Indonesian agents have been hunting our stringers in WP, and are also in Australia.
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