Q&A: Australia’s reaction to arrest of French journalists in West Papua

The Australian government, by supporting a motion passed by the Senate, expressed concern over restrictions to press freedom in West Papua. AAP Image/Sue Wellwood

The Australian Senate passed a motion last week, with explicit support from the Foreign Minister’s office, expressing concern over the imprisonment of two French journalists for reporting in Indonesia’s restive province using tourist visas.

The motion notes that press freedom in West Papua, where a 50-year separatist movement exists, is “tightly restricted”. The Senate called for the Australian government to request Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat’s release.

The following is an interview with Ross Tapsell.


How will Australia’s comment about press freedom in West Papua affect Australia-Indonesia relations?

Unfortunately I doubt the comment will mean much at a time like this. Just last week we saw numerous Australian media practitioners dismayed that Parliament passed tougher national security laws, which will have implications for journalists and whistle-blowers.

One case that has been cited that would have been affected by these new laws is the reporting of Australian government tapping of the Indonesian president and his wife’s phone. Earlier this year, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called on the Australian government to stop suppressing details of a court case which involved him. Also, as others have already pointed out, Australia doesn’t allow journalists into Manus Island detention centre to talk to asylum seekers.

So while it is great that Australia stands up for greater access for foreign journalists in West Papua, we are hardly a beacon of light for media freedom at the moment. The Australian government has to practise what it preaches, otherwise it risks being seen as hypocritical.

What is the state of press freedom in West Papua for foreign journalists and how extraordinary is the case of Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat?

West Papua is the only region in Indonesia where journalists need a special permit and clearance from officials in Jakarta.

The Indonesian government has a long history of restricting foreign press as well as other researchers and aid workers from accessing the region since it took the territory in 1963. For example, in June 1969, the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club lodged a protest with the Ministry of Information on the restriction on travel and entry of foreign press into West Papua, claiming the measures would have grave consequences for Indonesia’s image abroad and lend substance to doubts about the government’s approach to the region. The current situation for foreign media is, sadly, not new.

Some selected foreign journalists have received permission from Jakarta to report from West Papua, and they are almost always followed by intelligence agencies in the region. By my rough count, around ten Australian journalists have received permission to travel to the region since 2006.

Today, it is possible to go to many areas of the Papua provinces as a tourist. As such, many foreign journalists have entered on a tourist visa and reported from the region, as Dandois and Bourrat allegedly did. If caught and found to be there on a wrong visa, they are usually evicted from the region or sent home to their country. So it is extraordinary that these French journalists have been in jail for this amount of time.

This is also very poor public relations management of the situation by the Indonesian government. The longer the journalists are in jail the more likely international attention will be drawn to this story and Indonesia’s image will continue to be tarnished.

How should the new Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, deal with this case?

The French journalists should be released from jail in Papua and sent home. This would be consistent with previous actions taken by the Indonesian government.

Joko Widodo has said that once he is president he will consult widely with Papuans who are looking to improve the situation in their region. Obviously all advocates of media freedom (including myself) would like to see more openness in the region, including for both foreign and local media.

It is important to remember that many local Papuan journalists face threats and intimidation from security forces on a regular basis simply for doing their job. It is difficult for them to report on issues involving local politicians, human rights and the role of security forces in the region. There are numerous stories that simply can’t be published in the local press. So let’s not forget local journalists, and more broadly the restrictions on freedom of expression in the Papua provinces.

Certainly, ending the visa restrictions for foreign journalists is a good place for Widodo to start.