Indonesia’s media freedom sustained a worrying blow on Friday when a court in Jayapura, on the country’s easternmost island of Papua, convicted French journalists Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat of “abusive use of entry visas.” The two journalists – detained since August 6 – will be freed on Monday based on time-served. But their arrest and conviction reflects the Indonesian government’s willingness to steamroll journalists’ rights in order to keep foreign media from reporting from 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). 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 organized OPM. 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. More than 60 Papuan activists are in prison on “treason” charges.
There have been hopes that President Joko Widodo, who took office on October 20, would lift official obstacles for foreign journalists and international organizations to visit Papua. Widodo visited Papua during the election campaign and assured journalists that the government “has nothing to hide” on the island. Dandois and Bourrat’s plight suggests that the government still has plenty to hide and will punish those who challenge its repressive chokehold on foreign media access to Papua.