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'The Hardest Thing Was Not Knowing the Outcome': VICE News Talks to the French Journalists Freed From Jail in Papua

In an interview with VICE News, two French journalists who faced up to five years in jail in Indonesia explain the circumstances surrounding their arrest.
October 29, 2014, 9:55pm
VICE News

French journalists Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat faced up to five years in jail for illegally reporting in the Indonesian province of Papua, where separatists have been carrying out a low-level insurgency against the central government for decades.

According to French newspaper Libération, the pair had been shooting a documentary on the separatist Free Papua Movement for Franco-German television channel Arte and were arrested at August 6, 2014. They ultimately served a two and a half months jail sentence and were released this week.

Journalists Face Jail for Reporting on Indonesia's Separatist Rebels. Read more.

VICE News spoke to the two journalists today, hours after they landed in Paris. They talked with us about the circumstances surrounding their arrest, the conditions of their detention, and why they were released.

VICE News: Can you describe your arrest?
Thomas Dandois: We were arrested in Papua, in Wamena, in the mountains. We were trying to make contact to go and meet one of the rebel groups. A rebel movement made from pieces of string, from this and that, from bows and arrows, from peashooters. We're talking about a primitive rebellion. We were arrested as we were leaving a house, on our way to meet the people who were going to lead us to where the rebels were.

Valentine Bourrat: I was arrested at the same time as Thomas but we did not witness each other's arrest. They took him to the police station, but I was able to go back to the hotel after successfully misleading the police. Being a woman, they thought I might not be involved. I was completely hysterical. I hid in another hotel room to call the production team and the embassy. They advised me to return to my hotel, where the police arrested me.

What were the circumstances immediately surrounding your arrest?
Dandois: At that point, everyone was nervous because some police officers had been gunned down the previous day. The authorities were really angry. They found their men with their noses and ears cut off. They were traumatized. They wanted someone to pay, and that's where we came in. Usually, in this kind of situation, when you are arrested somewhere without a [journalist] visa, you're detained for 48 hours, then you're expelled, and it's over and done with.

What were the first few days like for you?
Bourrat: We spent the night at the police station, and in the morning, we finally admitted that we were journalists. Prior to that, we had been saying that we were tourists, who had come to fetch honey from the man we were visiting. When we confessed, we were transferred by plane to the region's capital. They only found a few videos, without sound. Their proof came mostly from witnesses and from our equipment.

Dandois: Apparently, several of the people we were in contact with had been tapped. It took a while because we didn't give anything up; no sources, nothing.

Bourrat: We were being detained at the immigration center, in a closed-off room. Two police officers watched over us constantly. I was allowed to cook and, every now and again, to go grocery shopping with a guard.

What were you accused of?
Dandois: We were accused of reporting while on a tourist visa. What you have to know is that journalist visas are extremely hard to come by in Papua — it takes forever to get one. The best thing to do in this case is to just pretend to be a tourist. I had already done this in other countries. In fact, I was once jailed in Niger, in Niamey. Wherever you find rebel movements, there are riches underground. The same was true of Niger. Papua's gold mine is at the heart of the problem. As is so often the case, Papua's natural resources cause only trouble for the region's indigenous population.

Can you describe your detention?
Dandois: The conditions were decent enough. The hardest thing — harder still for Valentine, because I had already had similar experiences — was not knowing the outcome. There is always the possibility that you will spend five years of your life in prison for violating the terms of a journalist visa. It's insane. It's hard to come to terms with, to stay clear-headed.

Things were at a standstill for two months, because the timing was bad. There was a governmental transition, the new president came in on a democratic path, with a ton of projects. At the time of our arrest, all the ministers were two months away from being removed from office. They let the situation fester. We had no information on what was going to become of us.

Bourrat: The French embassy found us an attorney. One of the top attorneys used by the embassy. François Hollande and the Elysée [the French government] played a big part. Their intervention in New York really paid off.

Dandois: We felt there was a distinct 'before' and 'after' the meeting between François Hollande, the Indonesian government team, and the UN. We were expecting the trial to last a month and a half. The presiding judge told us that they would do their best to have it be over in a week. That sent a strong signal. All this is down to the momentum that came from François Hollande's visit to New York.

People often wonder, what is the point of support movements for detained journalists? I can tell you that they are worth their weight in gold. Just knowing, when you're being detained, that people are mobilizing for you. And also because it provokes government intervention. It provides effective leverage.