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Jakarta Post

'€˜Live from Papua'€™: Indonesia'€™s free-press black hole

  • Julia Suryakusuma

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, October 1, 2014   /  11:26 am

When you are a journalist, you know that following your journalistic instincts sometimes means big trouble.

That'€™s why a slew of films have been made on this topic, including: The Killing Fields (1984) a drama about the civil war in Cambodia; The China Syndrome (1979), an American thriller about the dangers of nuclear power and Veronica Guerin, a 2003 biographical Irish film about the drug trade in Dublin. These three films were all based on true stories.

The characters of Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson), Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) and the eponymous character of Veronica Guerin (Cate Blanchett), all risked their lives in their pursuit of the truth '€” the ultimate aim of investigative journalism. For that Guerin also paid the ultimate price: She was murdered in 1996.

 I reckon a film entitled Live from Papua could also be made about the two French journalists, Valentine Bourrat and Thomas Dandois, who have been detained in Papua since Aug. 6 this year. They were arrested while filming the conditions in which the local population lives. The trouble was, they were there on tourist visas.

So when the authorities caught them not long after they arrived, it would have been pretty easy to hit them with immigration violations and deport them.

A clear-cut case, huh?

So how come two months later they are still being detained, especially after they admitted they were working without press visas and have apologized? It turns out that because Bourrat and Dandois had contacted local separatists, seeking to film their demands, they are facing the possibility of subversion charges.

If brought to trial, they could face up to five years in jail and a fine of up to Rp 500 million (US$41,000). Heavy stuff.

The Alliance of Indonesian Journalists (AJI) has condemned the detention of the two French journalists. They say that it adds to the long list of the failures of the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono when it comes to press freedom in Indonesia.

There is certainly precedent for this sort of thing.

In 2010, another French journalist, Baudoein Koening, was also kicked out.

Unlike Bourrat and Dandois, he was legit: He came with a press visa. His crime was filming a peaceful student demonstration in favor of autonomy.

According to Endy M. Bayuni, former editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post, it has always been very difficult to get permission to go to Papua as a journalist.

Even when international news agencies like Agence France Press (AFP), Reuters or Associated Press (AP) journalists apply, it can take more than a year to get a visa.

This '€œgo slow'€ approach enables the government to deny there is a ban on foreign journalists visiting Papua.

Tourists on the other hand, can travel freely in Papua. No wonder so many journalists come to Indonesia using a tourist visa. They just have to be careful not to get caught.

Bourrat and Dandois were unlucky. They came at a time when tension and violence were at a peak, with five separatist rebels shot dead in an exchange of gunfire with the Indonesian military just a few days earlier.

The political transition was another factor, with local military authorities exploiting the gap between the end of the Yudhoyono administration and the start of that of Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo.

Benjamin Ismail, head of the Asia-Pacific desk of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB) has a take on this.

'€œFor the local authorities it might be the last opportunity to send a big message internationally not only to foreign journalists but also to human-rights activists, NGOs and even the UN, as they have tried to send inspectors in the region,'€ says Ismail.

The reality is that there has been a foreign-media blackout imposed on Papua whereby the central government has restricted the access of journalists, activists, researchers, diplomats and aid workers ever since it was annexed by Indonesia in 1963.

Yet this has not prevented Papua'€™s separatist movement from becoming well known. Activists are jailed for raising the banned separatist flag, and security forces are heavy-handed, engaging in abuse, violence and even torture.

Despite Papua'€™s vast natural wealth, most Papuans live in extreme poverty. Is it any wonder they are resentful and want independence?

Indonesia ranks 132 on the RWB press freedom index, lower than Thailand (at 130), and Brunei (at 117). Ismail says that Indonesia'€™s rank would be much higher if Papua were excluded. They do that for Hong Kong (60) and Taiwan (50), which rank much higher than China (175).

Ismail points out that in 2006 Indonesia ratified the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. It therefore must be implemented as part of Indonesian law.

The covenant says you cannot discriminate regarding the entry of foreign journalists, especially to sensitive regions where there are allegations of human-rights abuse.

Ah well, it certainly isn'€™t the first time Indonesia has ratified an international convention and then not applied it domestically.

After his expulsion, Koening wrote of his experience: '€œWhy does Indonesian democracy stop at Papua?'€ (The Guardian, June 9, 2010).

The answer is that since its annexation, Papua was basically set up as a colony. This has been the case under every single Indonesian government since 1963.

Will things change with Jokowi? While campaigning in Papua, our incoming president stated that the region'€™s development was a priority program for his Cabinet and he was committed to implementing it immediately after his inauguration on Oct. 20. He also promised to open Papua to journalists.

Will it finally be possible then, to shoot Live from Papua?


The writer is the author of Julia'€™s Jihad.

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