The Tamil Nadu Police on Friday booked French journalists Jules Giraudat and Arthur Bouvart and a priest, Father Hildas, for allegedly entering a restricted area of the Indian Rare Earths Limited in Manavalakurichi in Kanyakumari district. According to the first information report, the three were booked for criminal trespass under the Indian Penal Code and under Sections 14(A) (penalty for entry in restricted areas), 14(B) (penalty for using forged passport) and 14(C) (penalty for abetment) of the Foreigners Act, 1946.

Giraudat is deputy editor of Freedom Voices Network Team and an accredited member of the Commission de Carte d’Identite des Journalistes Professionals, the organisation authorised to issue identity cards for professional journalists in France. Bouvart is also a part of the Freedom Voices Network Team. The two have worked on several investigative documentaries, including one on chemical pollution in India and the United States, titled Poisoned Lives: Secrets of the Chemical Industry. They were reportedly working on a documentary on the environmental impact of illegal sand mining along the Tamil Nadu coast. The Indian Rare Earths Limited is the Central government’s beach sand mining agency.

Union minister Pon Radhakrishnan, who is also the Bharatiya Janata Party Lok Sabha MP from Kanyakumari, was quick to call the French journalists “spies” and their actions “an act of espionage”. In a statement to the media, he said the two had “crossed the sea for spying”.

Before registering the trespassing case against Giraudat, Bouvart and the Indian priest, the Kanyakumari Police had summoned Chennai-based journalists D Ananthakumar and M Sriram on November 28 for questioning , alleging that they had helped the French reporters enter the restricted area and later, “escape the country”. They were illegally detained in their hotel rooms and harassed that day and the following day, the media advocacy group Alliance for Media Freedom has alleged in their statement.

In this backdrop, spoke with Jules Giraudat, who rubbished the allegations against him and Bouvart as well as the two Indian journalists.

Excerpts from the interview:

What was the purpose of your visit to Tamil Nadu?
We are investigative journalists working on matters relating to the environment. We found that there is a big problem of beach erosion in Tamil Nadu. Fishermen are losing their homes and beaches are dramatically becoming smaller as a result of the erosion. As investigative reporters, we wanted to bring this matter to international attention. Since there is very little information on this in articles and films that have come out so far, we planned to tour some areas along the coast, meet fishermen and a few leaders.

Why did you visit on a tourist visa?
There are two main reasons why we decided to come on tourist visas. One is that the procedure to get a journalist visa is complicated, especially for environmental journalists. We were not sure we would get one if we said we planned to make a documentary on environmental problems in India. The second reason is time. It takes a very long time to get a journalist visa.

The Kanyakumari Police have accused you and your colleague of entering the restricted area of Indian Rare Earths Limited, and the two Indian journalists of helping you enter the restricted area and then escape to your country?
As part of our visit to coastal areas, we met the priest [on November 26] who proposed a visit to the Indian Rare Earths Limited. We went there to seek permission to enter the place. We went through the [main] entrance to the director’s office. We were asked to leave our cellphones at the entrance and we did. We went to the office of the director. The director told us that we cannot come in without permission and asked us to leave. We left immediately and nothing else happened. We did not get into the area without permission. We are not spies and did nothing against the law. The allegations that we entered the area without anyone’s knowledge and shot videos are false. The two Indian journalists did not come with us and they had nothing to do with this.

Why did you not approach the French consulate or embassy before leaving India?
We did not leave in a hurry. Our flight tickets were booked in advance and we left accordingly.