News that two French journalists have been arrested in West Papua should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the way the Indonesian government traditionally deals with threats to its authority.
Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat were arrested on August 6th, allegedly for working in the province without a proper journalist visa. The pair were shooting a documentary for the Franco-German TV channel Arte on the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM), which has for years waged a low level insurgency campaign against the Indonesian government.
Since it gained its independence from the Dutch after World War II, and certainly since the Suharto regime came to power in the 1960s, Indonesia has traditionally taken a firm stance against any internal dissent. The most well known example occurred in East Timor in the 1970s; only it wasn’t so well known because the Indonesian government managed to shut down the province, denying access to the Western media or anyone else who might have been inclined to stir up trouble. For years Indonesia was able to engage in a cruel policy of suppression that by many estimates cost the lives of almost a third of the Timorese population. Eventually they could no longer stave off the inevitable and East Timor gained its independence in 2002.
Part of the reason I wrote my novel Francesca, which is set around the time of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, was that so few people had heard of this country and its struggles. It seemed evidence that the strategy of shutting down a troublesome region, denying access to outsiders and keeping a tight grip on the country’s internal media, worked. The thinking went that if no one knew, no one could complain, and no one would try to put a stop to it.
So I am curious to see how effective this policy will be in the age of social media and instant global communications. In one sense there’s no excuse for ignorance. Anyone with a search engine and the desire to know more can get an update on the fate of Dandois and Bourrat in seconds. The question then becomes, does anyone care, and is anyone going to do anything about it? Or is the information overload just too overwhelming, a couple of lone crusaders competing for our attention against vaster tragedies in Syria, Gaza and Iraq? Are there times when too much information is even more effective than too little?
My novel Francesca is available here. In the meantime you can follow the fates of the French journalists on twitter at #dandois and #bourrat