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At a Protest for Two French Journalists Jailed in West Papua

Two French journalists who have been trapped in a West Papuan jail for more than 40 days. Depending on how things pan out they could face 20 years behind bars.
September 24, 2014, 4:33am

Protesters call for the release of two French journalists outside the Indonesian consulate

A face frowned through the glass at a bright banner waving on a fishing rod below the consulate window. 15 years in an Indonesian jail can be the penalty for flying the Morningstar flag, symbol of the West Papuan independence movement. But Jakarta’s little patch of Sydney lay 50 cm away, separated from Australian soil by a stern metal fence. There was nothing they could do.


A tiny pod of protesters had prisons in mind as they gathered on the Maroubra footpath outside the Indonesian consulate yesterday. They held up candles in glass lanterns for two French journalists who have been trapped in a West Papuan jail for more than 40 days. Depending on how things pan out they could face 20 years behind bars.

This reporter helped organise the vigil because Valentine Bourrat, 29, and Thomas Dandois, 40 have little prospect of seeing freedom any time soon unless the Indonesian Government relents and lets them go. The journalists went to the secretive region, annexed by Indonesia in 1969, to make a documentary for Arte TV in France. They wanted to report on the independence movement which began fighting after a disputed vote called the “Act of Free Choice” handed the fertile western half of New Guinea to Jakarta.

The lure of the story is strong for Western media. Some highland tribes have had little contact with the modern world. Remote areas are almost first contact regions.

A demographic genocide has unfurled since Indonesia took over according to the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, which has reported that migrants outnumber native West Papuans after less than 50 years of occupation. Endangered tribes may vanish before their unique existence is even recorded.

Independence fighters hiding in caves have fought the Indonesian military with bows and arrows, and relic World War II rifles found in the forest. Over the years the military has responded with napalm, cluster bombs and aerial strafing.


Indonesia promises to bring greater economic development to the region which contains the world’s richest goldmine as well as valuable timber and agricultural land. But Jakarta is highly sensitive about any hints that West Papuans aspire to separate and has gone to great lengths to silence independence leaders - including putting an international arrest warrant out for Benny Wenda on bogus accusations of terrorism in 2011. Interpol dropped the red notice after finding it had been politically motivated.

Independence leader Benny Wenda tuning his ukelele at the raising of the Morningstar flag in PNG in December. He was falsely accused of terrorism. Interpol dropped the red notice after finding the allegations were politically motivated.

This sensitivity makes interviewing the armed independence movement, the OPM, an extremely difficult task, not least because of the logistical difficulties of finding them and the expense of getting there.

It is a story coveted by journalists who are proud of their craft and are keen to tell the little-known stories of the region. Indonesia’s supporters have said it is easy to get a foreign journalist’s visa through the right channels, but reporters say that in practice they have found the reverse to be true. Gold Walkley-winning journalist Mark Davis was recently granted a pass to produce a Dateline story for Australian TV station SBS which aired on June 3. But he was openly followed through the streets by Indonesians who filmed him as he went. That kind of attention makes it difficult for reporters to do their jobs because West Papuans can be afraid to tell their stories even when a potential informer isn’t hovering.


Ms Bourrat and Mr Dandois did what others have done before them. They went in on a tourist visa, and they got caught. The usual penalty is to be deported, but Indonesian authorities have instead responded with a severity that has shocked the media industry.

Indonesian police told Fairfax Media reporter Michael Bachelard that the pair were being investigated for criminal subversion after communicating with independence leaders. If they are charged they could face 20 years in prison. The pair could get the maximum five years’ jail for the visa breach alone. The Immigration Office in Papua told Fairfax Media that they want the journalists to get the maximum penalty.

The International Federation of Journalists and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance have both called for Ms Bourrat and Mr Dandois to be freed. “MEAA condemns the ongoing detention of the pair and urges Indonesian authorities to free Dandois and Bourrat and drop all charges against them,” the journalist’s union said in a statement.

In New Zealand a lunchtime vigil was held at the central Auckland city church of St Matthews where Vicar Helen Jacobi prayed for the pair.

A rally was held in Wellington on the steps of Parliament calling on the NZ Government to help the journalists.

In Sydney, supporters held candles at the gates of the Indonesian consulate and gave flowers to passers-by before writing letters of support to send the journalists.

There were more police than protesters there, perhaps because the FaceBook event page registered 100 people as attending. Many without the ability to attend had registered their support from far-away places by clicking they were “going”.

Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo has said he wants to open up West Papua to foreign media, address corruption and improve human rights across the archipelago. Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono said he will have to battle forces that don’t want change both in West Papua and in his own coalition. When asked how Australia can help, Mr Harsono said: “criticise”. When the rest of the world makes it clear that violating human rights is not acceptable it helps Jokowi to overcome opposition, he said.

His first test is now laid before him.

The Indonesian Embassy was contacted for a response. Police Attache Mr Nazluddin referred questions to police in Indonesia who have all the details of the case. Mr Nazluddin said that if people want to know how authorities respond in West Papua, then they should go themselves to the region and gather their own information.

Follow Alison on Twitter: @AlisonBevege