Two French journalists, Valentine Bourrat, 29, and Thomas Dandois, 40, went on trial today in Jayapura, the capital of the Indonesian province of Papua, and could face up to five years in prison.
According to French newspaper Libération, the pair were shooting a documentary on the separatist Free Papua Movement for Franco-German television channel Arte when they were arrested on August 6, 2014.
French reporter Pierre Creisson is heading up the support committee for the two detained journalists. In December 2007 and January 2008, Creisson and Dandois spent a month together in jail in Niamey, Niger, for apparently violating the terms of their media accreditation.
Speaking to VICE News, Creisson shed some light on his colleague's recent arrest: "Valentine and Thomas were detained for entering the Indonesian territory without a journalist visa. They did not voluntarily apply for one, because this kind of visa is extremely difficult to obtain. Especially when you are headed to Papua."
According to French public radio channel France Inter, the Indonesian government is known to systematically refuse all applications for press visas in the region.
For Creisson, however, the absence of a journalist visa is insufficient to explain the gravity of the legal proceedings that have been set in motion. He points out that in the past similar cases have merely resulted in deportation. "Officially, the content of the documentary is unrelated to the charges, but the story they wanted to tell in Papua is one that has long disturbed the Indonesian government."
Philippe Raggi, a researcher and director of the South East Asian department at the Paris Academy of Geopolitics, told VICE News that reporting on Papuan separatists is not without danger: "Certain parts of the region are not accessible to journalists, usually areas that are affected by military operations. Members of Australian NGOs who were working in Papua and who riled the authorities ended up having problems. Any association with separatists is very much frowned upon."
Raggi also explained the high financial stakes contributing to the conflict between Papuan and Indonesian groups in the region: "There is a copper and gold mine in Papua, the Grasberg mine, one of the biggest in the world… Sometimes, the separatists make targeted attacks against the infrastructure, or the roads to disrupt transport of the ore. They also attack the foremen.
"In their mind's eye, the Indonesian state is a colonizer. The Papuans work the mine, they are exploited, none of them make it into management… The state sends Indonesians from other regions to settle in Papua."
Meanwhile, Sulistyo Pudjo, a spokesperson for the Papuan police, has accused the two journalists of "anti-Indonesian propaganda." Shortly after their arrest, Pudjo told AFP news agency that, "they encouraged people to commit treason."
Creisson said that Bourrat and Dandois have spent the last two months sleeping on a sofa within the local immigration services building. He is in regular telephone communication with the pair, however, and is ultimately optimistic about their fate, as is Raggi. Their trial coincides with the swearing in of a new president, Joko Widodo — who is known for a more liberal stance with the press and being less susceptible to the army's demands than previous regimes. With his new government in place, the two journalists could soon be freed.
Follow Virgile Dall'Armellina on Twitter: @armellina
Image via Wikimedia Commons