Two arrested French journalists Thomas Dandois (center), 40, and Valentine Bourrat (left), 29, from Franco-German television channel Arte are photographed with an unidentified Indonesian immigration official in Jayapura city in Papua province on August 28, 2014.

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(New York) The Indonesian government should dismiss charges against two French journalists in the easternmost province of Papua and end restrictions on foreign media there, Human Rights Watch said today. Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat face trial on October 20, 2014, on charges of “abusive use of entry visas,” after being detained while producing a documentary for Franco-German Arte TV.

The arrest and prosecution of Dandois and Bourrat reflect the Indonesian government’s long-standing policy of obstructing independent media coverage in Papua, where a low-level conflict has persisted for decades. Foreign journalists need special official permission to visit the island – which the government rarely approves and often delays processing, hindering reporting on breaking news. Journalists who do get official permission are invariably shadowed by official minders, who strictly control their movements and access to interviewees.

“The Indonesian government’s chokehold on Papua media coverage has effectively turned foreign journalism in the province into a criminal activity,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “The government should drop the charges against Dandois and Bourrat as a first step toward ending the gag on foreign media reporting on Papua.”

Police arrested and detained Dandois and Bourrat on August 6 on suspicion of “working illegally” without official media accreditation. On August 14 the Papua police spokesman, Sulistyo Pudjo, suggested that the two journalists would face “subversion” charges for allegedly filming members of the armed separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM). Pudjo suggested that the Arte TV journalists “were part of an effort to destabilize Papua.” 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.

The Indonesian government has responded harshly to foreign media efforts to circumvent the official obstacles to reporting from Papua. 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.” Although the government permits Indonesian domestic media to report from Papua, there are serious concerns about its reliability in the face of government efforts to control the flow of information from the province. Official documents leaked in 2011 indicate that the Indonesian military employs some two-dozen Papua-based Indonesian journalists as informers, raising doubts about the objectivity of their reporting. The Indonesian military has also financed and trained journalists and bloggers, warning them about alleged foreign interference in Papua, including by the US and other governments.

The government justifies its restrictions on media access to Papua as a necessary security precaution due to the ongoing 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 a suspected OPM attack on Indonesian military forces that 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 more than 60 Papuan activists are in prison on charges of “treason.”

Media freedom is enshrined in international human rights law and is crucial for ensuring respect for other rights. The media play a crucial role in exposing abuses of power, human rights violations, corporate malfeasance, and health and environmental crises, thus helping to ensure that the public is informed, abuses cease, criminals face justice, and victims can seek redress.

The core international human rights instruments uphold media freedom, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 19), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (article 19), which Indonesia ratified in 2005. Article 28 of the Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia guarantees the freedom “to express written and oral opinions,” while article 28F guarantees “the right to communicate and to obtain information … and the right to seek, obtain, possess, store, process and convey information.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent body that monitors compliance with the ICCPR, has stated that “Journalism is a function shared by a wide range of actors, including professional full-time reporters and analysts, as well as bloggers and others who engage in forms of self-publication in print, on the internet or elsewhere, and general State systems of registration or licensing of journalists are incompatible” with the full realization of freedom of expression “essential for the promotion and protection of human rights.”

While governments may place restrictions on the right to freedom of movement on national security grounds, the manner and extent of such restrictions must be necessary and proportionate to attain a legitimate government purpose. The broad-brush government restrictions on foreign media access to Papua go beyond what is permissible under international law.

The government of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been unwilling to loosen restrictions on journalists’ access to Papua. In December 2013, Human Rights Watch and three domestic human rights organizations sent a letter to Vice President Boediono, who led government reconciliation efforts in the province, asking him to end Papua’s media isolation. No response was ever received. Yudhoyono’s successor, President-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who was elected on July 9, 2014, and will take office on October 20, visited Papua on June 5 during the election campaign and indicated that he would open access to Papua for foreign journalists and international organizations.

“Indonesia’s new president should demonstrate that the government ‘has nothing to hide’ in Papua by lifting official obstacles to reporting in the province,” Kine said. “When he takes office on October 20, President Widodo needs to show his commitment to press freedom by dropping charges against Dandois and Bourrat and ending the government’s oppressive media policy in Papua.”