British journalists on trial over Indonesia piracy film

BATAM, Indonesia (AFP) - Two British journalists have gone on trial in Indonesia for allegedly trying to make a documentary about piracy without the correct visas, and could face up to five years in jail, an official said Tuesday.

Neil Bonner, 32, and Rebecca Prosser, 31, appeared in court together Monday on the western island of Batam accused of having only tourist visas while attempting to make the film, Mr Ali Akbar, a senior official at the local prosecutor's office, told AFP.

"They have broken Indonesian immigration law and could be jailed for up to five years if found guilty," he said.

Foreign journalists wanting to report in Indonesia must get a special visa. However, foreign reporters detained in Indonesia for illegal reporting in the past have been deported immediately or handed short prison terms.

According to their indictment seen by AFP, the pair arrived in Indonesia in May to shoot the film for production house Wall To Wall with funding from National Geographic.

It added they had hired several Indonesians to act out a scene of a tanker being boarded by a group of pirates off Batam. The island is in the Malacca Strait, a major shipping lane.

The number of pirate attacks in South-east Asian waters rose last year, according to watchdog the International Maritime Bureau, bucking a global trend of falling piracy incidents.

"Acting on tip-off from residents, the Indonesian navy carried out a raid and arrested them," the indictment said, adding they had carried out activities that were "not appropriate" on a tourist visa.

The next hearing is on Thursday.

Their lawyer Aristo Pangaribuan told AFP what they had done was a "misdemeanour" rather than a serious criminal act.

"This case has been going on since May, the two want to go home immediately," he said.

A spokesman for the British embassy in Jakarta said: "We can confirm that we are providing consular assistance to the two British journalists currently detained in Batam, Indonesia, and are in contact with their families and legal representatives."

Two French journalists were given jail terms of two and a half months last year after being caught in Indonesia's Papua province trying to make a documentary on a separatist movement while on tourist visas.