French reporters Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat have spent the past two weeks in a police jail cell on Indonesia’s island of Papua.
The two journalists, who domestic media have reported were producing a documentary on the restive province for Franco-German Arte TV, are just the latest victims of the Indonesian government’s Papua censorship obsession.
Police arrested the pair on August 6 on charges of “working illegally” without official media accreditation. But things may be about to get a lot worse for them. On August 14, the Papua police spokesman, Sulistyo Pudjo, suggested that the two journalists may face “subversion” charges for allegedly filming members of the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM).
Dandois and Bourrat ran afoul of the Indonesian government’s 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 Indonesian government responds to foreign media efforts to circumvent the official obstacles to reporting from Papua with hostility. In July 2013, Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa defended the foreign media ban by warning of unnamed “elements in Papua who are keen to gain international attention by doing harm to international personalities, including journalists.” Police in Papua have rejected the French government’s confirmation of Dandois and Bourrat’s journalistic bona fides on the basis that neither possessed an up-to-date press card. Last week, Pudjo expressed concern that the Arte TV journalists “were part of an effort to destabilize Papua.”
The government has reason to fear the prying eyes of journalists in Papua. Human rights abuses remain rife in the province. Over the last three years alone, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases in which police, military, intelligence officers, and prison guards have used excessive force when dealing with Papuans exercising their right to peaceful assembly and association.
The residents of the Papuan town of Waghete are well-acquainted with the routine impunity for human rights abuses. It was there on September 23, 2013 that two officers with the National Police’s Mobile Brigade (“Brimob”) fired into a stone-throwing crowd, killing a 17-year-old student and seriously wounding three other people. The police posted guards at the hospital where the wounded were being treated, and required visitors to leave their mobile phones at the entrance. Domestic media reported that police confiscated the mobile phone of a nurse who had used it to take photos of the victims’ wounds.
The Waghete incident — which the Indonesian government has yet to investigate — is just one of many troubling incidents of violence and impunity that have characterized life in Papua since Indonesian military forces deployed there in 1963 to counter a long-simmering independence movement.
The government justifies its restrictions on media access to Papua as a necessary security precaution due to the ongoing low-level conflict with the OPM. The OPM is small and poorly organized, though it has increased in sophistication in recent years. Tensions heightened in Papua in February 2013 following an attack on Indonesian military forces by suspected OPM elements. The attack killed eight soldiers, the worst act of violence against the military in the area in more than 10 years. The government also consistently arrests and jails Papuan protesters for peacefully advocating independence or other political change. Currently 60 Papuan activists are in jail for “treason.”
The Indonesian government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been obstinate it its refusal to loosen its restrictions on journalists’ access to Papua. But there’s hope that Yudhoyono’s successor, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, will finally end the tight cordon of official censorship that isolates Papua from foreign media access. Widodo won the July 9 presidential election and will be officially inaugurated in late October.
Widodo visited Papua on June 5, during the election campaign. When local journalists asked if as president he would open access to Papua for foreign journalists and international organizations, he replied “Why not? It’s safe here in Papua. There’s nothing to hide.” Widodo needs the courage to end the Indonesian government’s Papua censorship obsession to test that assertion.
Phelim Kine is the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch and a former Jakarta-based foreign correspondent.