Detentions of two French reporters are latest evidence of Indonesian government's 'media blackout' in the territory
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Theo Hesegem was carrying a foreigner on his motorbike when a pair of police intelligence officers pulled up behind him and ordered him to stop. It was midday in Wamena, a small city in the highlands of West Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost region and the only one foreign journalistsneed a special permit to visit.
“Mr.Theo, where are you coming from?” the officers asked.
Hesegem, a human-rights activist, explained that he had been asked to give the woman a ride by the head of the local indigenous people’s council, Areki Wanimbo. Hesegem had been visiting Wanimbo’s office when the woman, Valentine Bourrat, arrived with another French citizen, Thomas Dandois, Hesegem said. What the three of them had discussed, Hesegem didn’t know, but he had been happy to drive Bourrat back to her hotel.
“We’re on heightened alert in Wamena,” the officers said, referring to a recent spate of violence in the area. The previous week, two policemen had been killed in a shoot-out with the West Papua National Liberation Army, or TPN-PB, a diffuse association of guerrilla groups that for decades have waged a low-level insurgency against Indonesian rule. “Just bring her back to the hotel,” the officers told Hesegem. “We might need to call her in for questioning.”
Hesegem, a native Papuan — the officers were Javanese, the country’s dominant ethnic group — did as he was asked. A few hours later, the police showed up at Bourrat’s hotel. Dandois didn’t make it that far; he was intercepted by officers on his way home from Wanimbo’s.
Today, more than a month after the arrests, Bourrat and Dandois, journalists who were filming a documentary on West Papua’s independence movement for Europe’s Arte TV, remain in custody in the region’s main city of Jayapura. Wanimbo has also been detained. Most journalists caught working on tourist visas in Indonesia are deported immediately, but in this case local officials have said they will seek a trial.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” Marc Dandois, Thomas’ brother, said.
The incident is just the latest evidence of a foreign media blackout imposed on West Papua. Since Indonesia took over the territory in 1963, the central government has restricted the access of journalists, activists, researchers, diplomats and aid workers. Conditions there can thus be difficult to discern from afar, but the province is known for its active independence movement; political prisoners, who are often jailed for raising the banned separatist flag; abuses by security forces; and the extreme poverty in which most Papuans live despite their homeland’s vast natural wealth.
While the government says journalists can travel freely in some parts of West Papua, as tourists can, reporters inquiring about political and human rights issues are routinely denied the permit required to enter. The policy amounts to a de facto ban on real reporting and is condemned by the United Nations, Western governments and human-rights organizations. Indonesia ranks 132nd on Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index; the study specifically mentions West Papua, calling it a “forbidden area” where “the work of journalists is handicapped by draconian news control policies.”
“For 52 years now the Indonesian military has been trying to hide what they are doing in West Papua and keep us silent,” said Benny Wenda, a West Papuan independence leader who lives in exile in the United Kingdom. “This is why they always try to stop foreign journalists’ reporting.”
I really got the impression that the Foreign Ministry wanted us to be there, but it was the army and the old school that didn’t.
Jakarta correspondent, Australian Associated Press
But some are optimistic the situation will soon change. On the campaign trail in June, Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo said there was no reason to keep West Papua closed. (Similar bans on reporting in Aceh and parts of eastern Indonesia were lifted in the previous decade.)
What’s more, since 2013, three Australian journalists have gained permission to examine controversial issues there. Still, the reporters remained limited in what they could do, and their experiences appear to have been aberrations rather than signs of a true shift.
In early 2013, Michael Bachelard, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Indonesia correspondent, was granted a permit to write about HIV/AIDS in West Papua. He returned with a startling exposé on the trafficking of Christian children to Islamic boarding schools in Java. But an intelligence agent ordered to accompany Bachelard by the clearinghouse committee that vetted his application was for logistical reasons never sent, allowing Bachelard more freedom than normal.
A few months later, Mark Davis, a video journalist with Australia’s SBS Dateline, produced a documentary in which he tried repeatedly to escape government minders and undercover military to see if West Papua really had changed. The men who organized his tour, Franzalbert Joku and Nic Messet, were a pair of formerly separatist Papuans now working for the central government. Joku and Messet had argued with Davis over whether the region was actually closed, and engineering the trip was their way of proving to the journalist that it wasn’t.
“As you can see,” Joku tells Davis in the video, “journalists are not banned, but you go through the correct channels — ”
“C’mon, Franz, no one’s been here in 10 years,” Davis interrupts. “So — I’m very grateful — ”
Most recently, Karlis Salna, a Jakarta-based correspondent with the Australian Associated Press, received a permit to look into the security situation. But obtaining the paperwork took a massive effort. Salna applied for entry a dozen times over a period of two years, but it wasn’t until he texted the Indonesian foreign minister’s spokesman to say he was visiting West Papua even without a permit — and that the government could deal with the fallout if he was arrested — that the journalist was allowed in. And even when Salna did arrive in West Papua, security personnel interrogated everyone he interviewed, he said.
“I really got the impression that the Foreign Ministry wanted us to be there, but it was the army and the old school that didn’t,” said Salna.
You get the impression from these people that Papua’s some sort of Russian gulag. And it’s just not that kind of place.
former adviser, Australia’s Labor Party
Opponents of the ban can be divided into two camps: those who emphasize the brutalities it suppresses and those who stress that the dearth of reporting allows rumors to spread and results in a portrait of conditions in the territory that is generally worse than they actually are.
In the latter group is Calum Hyslop, a former adviser to Australia’s Labor Party. A longtime observer of the region who visits regularly, Hyslop said that while abuses and inequities persist, conditions in West Papua have improved markedly since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship, in 1998. The ban, he argued, feeds a cycle whereby separatists fabricate stories of atrocities and foreign activists spread them in the media; it is therefore backfiring on Indonesia, he said.
"It’s a weekly occurrence of supposedly people being killed, people being tortured — it’s just not true,” he said. “You get the impression from these people that Papua’s some sort of Russian gulag. And it’s just not that kind of place. Go to Biak; it’s a paradise."
Eben Kirksey, author of Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power, a book about the Papuan freedom movement, agreed that the territory can be a nice place to visit. “At the same time,” he said, “people are being killed and tortured and it’s not being reported because of the ban on journalists.”
If foreign journalists are out there, they’re the ones who have the power, the network, the knowledge, the connections to expose these practices.
Human Rights Watch researcher
When pressed to explain the ban,Indonesian officials usually cite safety concerns. “There are elements in Papua who are keen to obtain international attention by bringing harm to international personalities, including journalists,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told ABC last year.
But Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said members of the security forces prefer that the ban remain in place because of concern that journalists would expose widespread corruption in the territory. In the latest high-profile case, Labora Sitorus, a low-level Papua Regional police officer was convicted in February of running an illegal logging operation. Sitorus, allegedly known as a “cash machine” for higher-ranking officers;evidence presented at the trial linked him to $127 million worth of transactions.
“These ‘self-interests’ are keeping the restrictions in place,” Harsono said. “Why? If foreign journalists are out there, they’re the ones who have the power, the network, the knowledge, the connections to expose these practices.”
Bourrat and Dandois were not the first foreign journalists to sneak into West Papua. But none since Oswald Iten of the Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung, who was jailed for 12 days in Jayapura in 2000, has been detained for anywhere near as long. A week and a half after the arrest, Dandois’ wife told a French magazine that her husband had thought the greatest risk, if he was caught, would be deportation. “Nobody thought that 10 days after being arrested, he would still be there.”
Hesegem said he sees hypocrisy in the ban. Western politicians often hold Indonesia up as a paragon of democracy in Southeast Asia and the Muslim world. But Hesegem said quasi-authoritarian rule in his part of the country stains that reputation. “If Indonesia is really a democracy,” he said, “then let reporters into Papua.”