Paramilitary Groups Attacks Press in Indonesia

April 19, 1999

His Excellency Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie
President, Republic of Indonesia
Office of the President
Bina Graha, Jalan Veteran No. 17
Jakarta Pusat, Indonesia

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is alarmed by the attacks against journalists working in East Timor that have accompanied the sharp escalation of violence in the province in recent weeks. Conditions are now extremely dangerous for journalists reporting in East Timor, as they are increasingly targeted by pro-government militias offended by press coverage of their activities.

The pro-government militias have launched a campaign to terrorize the local population and undermine plans for an upcoming United Nations-sponsored vote on the province’s autonomy, which could result in East Timor’s independence from Indonesia. The militias support the province’s integration with the country. As scores of civilians have been murdered, physically assaulted, and threatened by these paramilitary groups, CPJ has documented a series of attacks designed to suppress media coverage of the atrocities.

On February 24, Portuguese journalists Jose Alberto Carvalho, a reporter for the privately owned SIC television station, and Jose Maria Cyrni, a cameraman for the same station, were assaulted by a pro-government mob in Dili. The two were in the East Timorese capital’s Becora District, reporting on the violent clashes that erupted when pro-Indonesia militia soldiers fired on independence supporters during a funeral procession. Their assailants destroyed at least one camera and mobile phone, threatened the journalists at gunpoint, and beat the two severely before taking them to Becora police headquarters. Cyrni and Carvalho were reportedly well-treated by police, who turned them over to a pro-independence group that had gathered outside the police station to escort them to safety.

On February 25, in a faxed warning sent to various news agencies during Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s visit to Indonesia, two pro-integration militia leaders declared that “It is better to sacrifice an Australian diplomat or journalist to save the lives of 850,000 East Timorese.” The one-page statement noted that East Timor was “a victim of the dirty game by Australian myopic and deceitful journalists,” and was signed by Cancio Lopes de Carvalho and Eurico Guterres, the commanders of the Mahidi and Aitarak militias, respectively.

On March 26, about 20 members of the paramilitary group Mahidi stormed into the offices of the newspaper Suara Timor Timur (STT) and threatened to burn down the building as punishment for the newspaper’s antagonistic reporting. Although STT gives space to both pro-integration and pro-independence voices, militia members accused the newspaper’s staff of stirring conflict.

On April 9, John Aglionby, Southeast Asia correspondent for the London-based  Guardian newspaper, and Jenny Grant, Jakarta-based correspondent for the South China Morning Post, were threatened and harassed by members of the Red and White Iron militia (Besi Merah Putih), a pro-Indonesia paramilitary force, when they visited the town of Liquica. Aglionby and Grant were investigating the massacre of at least 25 villagers on church grounds there on April 6. Two militia members apparently spotted the journalists on the outskirts of town, and eventually managed to overtake their car. Armed with swords, they threatened to set the car on fire and assault the driver if he did not immediately transport the journalists back to Dili, the capital of East Timor. The militiamen escorted the journalists’ car back out of Liquica on motorbikes, and blocked it from entering the Liquica police station, where Aglionby and Grant hoped to file a complaint. In plain sight of police standing nearby on the station’s verandah, the militia members screamed at the driver to turn around, and repeated their earlier threats. Because police made no move to guarantee the safety of the journalists or their driver, they were forced to retreat.

On April 11, some two dozen members of the Red and White Iron militia attacked a convoy of journalists returning from Liquica. The journalists were on their way back from covering a mass held by East Timorese Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Belo at the site of the April 6 massacre.

John Aglionby described the attack in the April 12 edition of the Guardian newspaper, reporting that a large rock crashed through the windshield of his car, narrowly missing his head, and that “this was immediately followed by a 3-ft. metal pipe that came through the hole made by the stone and grazed my back.” The mob struck at the cars with swords, machetes, and iron bars. Jenny Grant of the South China Morning Post; her husband, Ric Kurnow, a producer for the American news network CNBC; Jorge Pinto and Leonel Castro, correspondents for the Portuguese newspaper Jornal de Noticias; and Emmanuel Dunand, a photographer for Agence France-Presse, were also among those attacked. Some journalists involved in the incident preferred not to be identified for security reasons.

A police truck accompanying the convoy did not intervene to protect the journalists.

On April 17-the same day that pro-Indonesian militia members led a rampage across Dili, killing at least 20 people-members of the Red and White Iron militia ransacked and destroyed the Dili offices of Suara Timor Timur, effectively shutting down East Timor’s only local independent newspaper. Wielding sticks and iron bars, militia members battered down the door to the building, and smashed STT’s computers, fax machines, and telephones; damage was estimated at 200 million rupiah (US$23,000). Two of the newspaper’s journalists have fled for Jakarta, fearing violent reprisals for their reporting. The newspaper’s publisher, Salvador Ximenes Soares, is not sure whether he will be able to put together the financing needed to resume operations. In an interview with The Australian newspaper, Soares also expressed his concern that “Obviously, if my journalists are in a dangerous situation, we will not be able to print.”

Also on April 17, four journalists were threatened when more than 100 pro-Indonesia militia members stormed the house of a prominent separatist leader and former member of parliament, Manuel Jose Carrascalao, and attacked nearly 150 refugees who had sought shelter there. Bernard Estrade, Jakarta bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, and Marie-Pierre Verot, a Jakarta-based freelance reporter for several major French news outlets, were inside Carrascalao’s home when it came under attack. They were pushed, beaten, and threatened at gunpoint, while some militia members chanted that the journalists should be killed.

Gerrit de Boer, Jakarta-based correspondent for the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, and Dermott O’Sullivan, a correspondent for the British magazine The Banker, witnessed the attack from outside the house. Three militia members surrounded and threatened to kill de Boer and O’Sullivan, ultimately forcing them to leave the premises.

Meanwhile, some militia members rescued Estrade and Verot, and escorted them back to their hotel.

Minutes after they were dropped off, the journalists were visited in their hotel lobby by a man they suspect was from the Red and White Iron militia. He was accompanied by four men armed with sticks and iron bars, and asked the journalists to hand over their notes, tape recorders, and cameras. Estrade refused to surrender his belongings, but showed the man his accreditation card, issued by the Indonesian government, and gave him his business card. Neither Estrade nor Verot were further harmed, and the group of men left the hotel.

As an organization dedicated to the defense of our colleagues around the world, CPJ is concerned that the government’s failure to control the paramilitary groups responsible for these attacks indicates support for their actions. While military leaders have denied training and arming the many pro-government militia groups now active in East Timor, both the army and the police have shown at least tacit complicity in their failure to stop the militias from threatening and even killing those who disagree with their views.

CPJ respectfully urges your administration to demonstrate its commitment to continued political reform by guaranteeing the safety of journalists reporting in East Timor during this volatile period. We further ask that the commander in chief of Indonesia’s armed forces, General Wiranto, honor his pledge to ensure that members of the police and army take decisive action to protect civilians from harm at the hands of paramilitary groups.

We thank you for your attention to this matter, and await your response.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director

Join CPJ in Protesting Attacks on the Press in Indonesia

Send a letter to:

His Excellency Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie
President, Republic of Indonesia
Office of the President
Bina Graha, Jalan Veteran No. 17
Jakarta Pusat, Indonesia