West Papua: Journalists face trial for 'subversion'

September 13, 2014
Valentine Bourrat and Thomas Dandois with an Indonesian immigration official.

Indonesian authorities are pushing for two French journalists arrested in West Papua to face trial and up to 20 years jail.

Valentine Bourrat and Thomas Dandois, journalists working for French media company Arte TV, were in West Papua filming a documentary about human rights. They were arrested in Wamena on August 6. Indigenous leader Areki Wanimbo, who was interviewed by them, was also arrested.

The pair were in West Papua on tourist visas. International journalists visiting the region for work are meant to apply for a journalist visa and a special permit from the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that only applies to West Papua.

Bourrat and Dandois were thus charged with misuse of permits. For being interviewed by them, Wanimbo has been charged with complicity to misuse a permit.

The Asian Human Rights Commission reported that chairperson of the Alliance of Independent Journalists Victor Mambor said these permits are difficult to obtain. Even when granted, the journalists must often be accompanied by government officials.

Indonesian foreign affairs minister Marty Natalegawa has previously said that such permits are needed only to ensure the security of journalists, because of instability in Papua.

But Indonesia has been criticised for the strict controls on journalists that are seen as a bid to suppress unfavourable information from reaching the outside world.

These charges carry a maximum sentence of five years jail and fines of IDR500 million ($46,000). Previously, unauthorised journalists have simply been deported.

But the head of the Immigration Office in Papua, Garda Tampubolon, told Fairfax Media: “It's our wish that they get the maximum penalty [of five years] but ... everything depends on the panel of judges.”

Indonesian authorities also hope to charge the journalists with subversion, alleging they supplied ammunition to West Papuan separatists.

Police spokesperson Sulistyo Pudjo told Fairfax a criminal subversion investigation was under way, but “this is a very complicated case, it is not easy”.

The charge relates to a July 28 incident, two days before the journalists arrived in West Papua, in which two police officers were shot.

Authorities also hope to charge Wanimbo with treason for collecting donations for a meeting on West Papua’s membership application to the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Subversion has a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.

Sulistyo said text messages on the phones of Bourrat and Dandois also showed they were taking orders from someone in Australia called “NC”. This turned out to be Melbourne-based journalist Nick Chesterfield, who runs media organisation West Papua Media, which is critical of Indonesia's occupation of West Papua.

Sulistyo told Fairfax: “Fortunately NC is in Australia, because if he was in Indonesia we’d arrest him.”

Chesterfield confirmed he is “NC”, but said his group gives advice to hundreds of journalists every year. “What we were doing is not a crime under international law, and assisting journalists is a basic element of freedom of the press,” he said.

Several groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, Asian Human Rights Commission, Alliance of Independent Journalists and Southeast Asian Press Alliance, have called on Indonesian authorities to release the journalists.

Joe Collins, a member of the Australia West Papua Association, wrote a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, saying: “The Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo promised to open West Papua to foreign journalists and non-government organisations if he won the election.

“'Why not? It's safe here in Papua,' he was quoted as saying. 'There's nothing to hide.' The security forces obviously think otherwise.”

One thing security forces may be trying to hide is the murder of West Papua National Committee (KNPB) leader Martinus Yohame. On August 19, Yohame gave a press conference criticising President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's visit to the area. The next day he disappeared.

His body was found on August 26, near the shore of Nana Island, Sorong. He was found in a sack, his arms and legs tied. His face was beaten and he had been shot in the chest. There was another wound in his stomach.

The KNPB believes the abduction and murder was carried out by Indonesian security forces. The website of Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate noted that, at the time, Yudhoyono was “celebrating the progress made in his development-focused strategy for Papua, making statements such as 'let's keep going with the positive development that has already been achieved in Papua and West Papua'.

“His audience of civil servants and tourism executives listened and watched as a flotilla of boats including 14 Indonesian navy ships as well as warships from the US, Australia and Singapore joined a sail past. Media hailed the event as a great success.”

West Papuans also lost the exiled vice-chairperson of the West Papua National Coalition for Liberation Dr John Ondawame on September 5. Ondawame died of a heart attack in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Ondawame was from the Amungme tribe in Mimika regency. A former leader of the OPM Free West Papua Movement, in recent years he had campaigned to get West Papua recognised in the Melanesian Spearhead Group.

In a tribute to Ondawame, fellow exile Benny Wenda said: “By helping us to finally cross the bridge and be accepted by our family as fellow Melanesians, John made one of the greatest contributions towards a Free West Papua ...

“I am fully confident that his spirit will never die and that it will continue to enlighten and inspire my people, especially the youth, for continuing to peacefully campaign to finally liberate our nation from colonial rule.”

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