JAYAPURA, Indonesia – Activists are calling on recently inaugurated President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to lift long-standing restrictions on foreigners covering the restive Papua province in the wake of the sentencing of two French journalists on Friday, October 24, for illegal reporting.
Thomas Dandois, 40, and Valentine Bourrat, 29, were each given a 2.5-month jail term, but will walk free on Monday after having already served the time in custody awaiting trial.
They expressed relief, with Dandois telling reporters: “I want to return to Paris as soon as possible in see my family.”
The pair were detained at the start of August while making a documentary for Franco-German television channel Arte about the separatist movement in eastern Papua.
‘It’s safe here in Papua. There’s nothing to hide’
– Jokowi, June 5, 2014
Indonesia is deeply sensitive about journalists covering Papua, where a low-level insurgency against the central government has simmered for decades, and rarely grants visas for foreigners to report independently in the region.
Indonesia’s Independent Alliance of Journalists (AJI) said it was the first time that foreign journalists have been tried for immigration violations in Papua, while rights groups called for Jokowi to drop curbs on reporting there.
“The Jokowi administration should… lift restrictions for independent journalists to visit Papua,” said Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Jokowi, the country’s first leader from outside the political and military elite, was sworn in Monday, October 20, with many hoping for a fresh new style of government in the world’s third-biggest democracy.
Dandois’s brother Marc echoed the sentiment, telling reporters at the court it was important “for journalists all over the world to be able to do their jobs freely without any obstacles”.
“I am proud of Thomas.”
While on the campaign trail in June, Jokowi indicated he would open access to Papua and West Papua for foreign journalists and international organizations.
“Why not? It’s safe here in Papua. There’s nothing to hide,” Jokowi said on June 5 when asked whether or not he would allow access to the country’s easternmost provinces for foreign reporters and campaigners, the Jakarta Post reported.
In the past, foreign journalists caught reporting illegally from Papua have been quickly deported.
But Dandois and Bourrat’s case went to trial, and the pair were charged with breaking immigration laws since they had tourist, not journalist visas.
The pair could have faced up to 5 years in jail but in the end prosecutors recommended a much shorter sentence, saying they had admitted their mistake.
Handing down the verdict Friday, chief judge Martinus Bala told the court in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, that the journalists had “been proven legitimately and convincingly guilty of the crime of conducting activities that are not in line with the permit given to them”.
He also ordered them to pay a IDR2 million ($170) fine each or spend an extra month in jail.
Their lawyer Aristo Pangaribuan said the pair did not plan to appeal.
While welcoming the short sentence, he warned: “From a legal perspective, this is not very good because it opens the door for the criminalisation of journalistic activities.”
Foreign journalists can apply for visas to report from Papua, but in reality they are rarely granted. Under the current system, 18 different government agencies have to give their approval, Harsono said.
“Reporters won’t use tourist visas if it is fair to apply for journalist ones,” he said.
Dandois was detained at a hotel in the city of Wamena with members of separatist group the Free Papua Movement (OPM), and Bourrat was detained shortly afterwards, according to authorities.
The OPM has been at the forefront of the fight against the central government in the resource-rich but poor and ethnically Melanesian region. – with reporting by Liva Lazore, Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com
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