Attacks on the Press 2001: Indonesia

Another year of political turmoil saw the Indonesian press clinging to its hard-won freedoms. But President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who took over from the quixotic Abdurrahman Wahid in July, is showing worrying signs of being less friendly toward the press than her predecessor.

One of Megawati’s first acts in office was to appoint a state minister for communications and information, leading to fears that her government would eventually re-establish the notorious Information Ministry, which Wahid disbanded in 1999. For decades, former dictator President Suharto used the ministry to license and sanction the media, controls that were lifted after he was forced from office in 1998.

The ministry itself had not been formally reintroduced at press time. But in December, Communication and Information Minister Syamsul Muarif complained that the press was “out of control.” Testifying before a parliamentary committee, Muarif, a member of Suharto’s Golkar Party, announced plans to strengthen criminal sanctions against the media in a new law to be introduced at a later date.

With regional rebellions, economic trouble, and the strain of a difficult transition toward democracy, Indonesia’s press often faces threats and assaults. In the restive northern Sumatra province of Aceh, the largest daily newspaper, Serambi Indonesia, was forced to suspend publication for two weeks in August following a series of threats from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), an Islamic separatist movement battling the army for control of the region. The rebels claimed the newspaper published too many reports reflecting the government position, a charge that the paper’s editor denied. Serambi‘s journalists have frequently been accused of bias by both sides in the bloody conflict, but press groups have defended them, praising the paper’s courage and balance in a time of virtual civil war.

In August, GAM rebels abducted three technicians from the state broadcaster TVRI after accusing the station of airing pro-government reports. The men were finally released unharmed nearly two months later. In late December, Zahrial, a reporter for Serambi in Aceh, was pulled off a public bus and beaten severely by Indonesian army officers after they saw the journalist’s press card, according to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance in Jakarta. The soldiers threatened to kill Zahrial if he reported the assault.

Journalists covering street demonstrations in Jakarta and elsewhere were attacked on several occasions, sometimes by police and other times by demonstrators or political groups. The Alliance of Independent Journalists reported that at least 95 instances had been recorded in which journalists were attacked or harassed because of their work.

In addition, journalists say that self-censorship is common, especially when reporting on religious conflict. “There are still pressures,” said Aristides Katoppo, veteran publisher of the newspaper Sinar Harapan. “The pressures may not be from the government side as they were in the past, but there is a lot from society.”

Advocacy groups and journalists also readily admit that ethical and professional lapses continue to plague the Indonesian media and undermine credibility. So-called envelope journalism, when journalists receive bribes and payments from their sources, occurs frequently, and “fake” journalists often use bogus press cards to extract favors from public officials and money from businessmen.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States, some mainstream media in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, also seemed to allow sectarian passions to color their reporting. It was widely reported that Israel, or simply, “the Jews,” were responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, inflaming anti-U.S. demonstrations. Fortunately, moderate leaders helped calm the situation and urge restraint.

The foreign press remained free from harassment through the year, for the most part, although all journalists face the same risks when covering street demonstrations and other turmoil. In January, it was reported that foreign journalists visiting Indonesia would be banned from conflict areas such as Aceh, Irian Jaya, and the Maluku islands. Officials, however, have not enforced the ban, and no coordinated government policy emerged on the issue. Indonesia continues to require visiting foreign correspondents to secure special visas prior to entering the country, a practice that CPJ has repeatedly urged the government to abandon since it was used in the past to blacklist some reporters.

In the legal arena, no progress was made toward drafting constitutional protections for the press. Political and business interests have similarly stalled long-promised broadcast reform legislation, which most journalists’ groups hope will eventually open up a traditionally opaque licensing process to greater competition and public accountability. Also in doubt are efforts to create a BBC-style, independently chartered public broadcast authority to replace the current state-controlled television and radio services.

CPJ remains concerned over Indonesia’s apparent unwillingness to cooperate with United Nations investigators seeking to bring the murderers of Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes to justice. Thoenes, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Financial Times, was killed in 1999 during East Timor’s fight for independence from Indonesia. Witnesses and investigators have identified his assailants as members of the Indonesian army’s notorious Battalion 745. Thus far, the government has shown little indication that it will prosecute anyone for the murder. In September, Tempo magazine reported that the Attorney General’s Office had quietly declared the case closed. Indonesian officials denied the claim and say they are cooperating with U.N. authorities, but no arrests have been made.

May 24

Agus Wijanarko, Republika
Yon Daryon, Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia
Thomas, Televisi Pendidikan Indonesia
Marsis, Pikiran Rakyat
Bambang Mudjono, Radar Tegal
Sarjono, Sinar Pagi

Six journalists were attacked by supporters of President Abdurrahman Wahid during a rally in Tegal, Central Java.

The attack was perpetrated by members of a group calling itself Laskar Diponegoro, which was composed of Wahid supporters from both the ruling National Awakening Party and the Nahdlatul Ulama, a grassroots Islamic organization.

On May 24, Laskar Diponegoro held a violent rally against Wahid’s political rival, the National Mandate Party (PAN), during which the house of a PAN official was torched.

After noticing the presence of journalists, several protesters abused them verbally and then assaulted them with metal poles and sticks, according to local and international news sources.

Six reporters were injured in the attack, including Wijanarko of the Jakarta-based daily newspaper Republika, who was beaten so severely that he suffered a concussion and spent five days in the hospital. The other injured journalists were Daryon, of the private television station Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia; Thomas, of the private television station Televisi Pendidikan Indonesia (like many Indonesians, he is known by only one name); Marsis, of the daily newspaper Pikiran Rakyat; Mudjono, of the local newspaper Radar Tegal; and Sarjono, of the national newspaper Sinar Pagi.

On May 31, CPJ sent a letter to President Wahid urging him to ensure that those responsible for these attacks are prosecuted. On June 13, CPJ received a personal e-mail message from the president’s daughter Yenny Zannuba Wahid, a former journalist who was then working as an adviser to her father. She wrote that President Wahid had ordered a special investigation into this incident and pledged that “we’ll try as hard as we can to prevent [such attacks] from happening in the future.”

On July 23, Wahid was impeached by the Indonesian Peoples’ Consultative Assembly, and Megawati Sukarnoputri was appointed president. At year’s end, the status of the investigation ordered by Wahid was unclear.

May 25

Torgeir Norling, free-lancer

Norling, a Norwegian free-lance journalist based in Bangkok, was stopped by Indonesian security forces as he was traveling by bus from Banda Aceh to Lhokseumawe, in Aceh Province, along with two Acehnese human rights activists.

At a checkpoint about 50 kilometers (31 miles) outside of Lhokseumawe, three police officers boarded the bus and headed straight for Norling, according to his own account. One of the officers pointed to him and said, “You are a journalist,” and ordered Norling and his two colleagues off the bus. Police took the group to the Jeumpa police headquarters in Bireuen City, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

Norling told CPJ that police and army officers interrogated the group for five hours, quizzing them about the purpose of their trip to Lhokseumawe. Police detained them overnight and early the next morning ordered them to take a bus to Lhokseumawe and report to the main police station there on arrival.

At the Lhokseumawe Police Station, Norling and his Acehnese associates were interrogated for about two hours. They were released abruptly after one of the officers received a phone call that Norling believes may have come from a senior official in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. By that time, AFP had already reported the group’s arrest.

Norling said that while he was not officially expelled from the province, an officer told him he would be in danger if he stayed in Aceh. He interpreted this warning as a veiled threat.

Aceh police operations spokesman Commissioner Sudharsono told AFP that the group was detained and interrogated because Norling did not have official authorization to report in the restive province. “We expect all foreign journalists to get letters of permission from the government if they want to come to Aceh, because the armed forces are responsible [for their safety],” Sudharsono said.

June 7

Philippe Simon, documentary filmmaker
Johan van Den Eynde, documentary filmmaker

Simon and van Den Eynde, two Belgian documentary filmmakers, were taken hostage on June 7 by a faction of the separatist Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or OPM). The two had been working in a remote area in Irian Jaya, also known as Papua. They were last seen when they left for the jungle east of Nabire, a coastal city about 500 kilometers (310 miles) southwest of the provincial capital, Jayapura.

The OPM is fighting for independence from Indonesian rule, and the faction responsible for the kidnapping apparently believed that taking the two filmmakers hostage would attract international attention to their cause.

After weeks of difficult and often confusing negotiations involving church mediators, Belgian and Indonesian officials, Papuan activists, and the Jakarta office of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Simon and van Den Eynde were released on August 16.

Titus Murib, leader of the OPM faction responsible for the kidnapping, told a representative from the Jakarta office of SEAPA who witnessed the release that OPM would guarantee the safety of journalists reporting in the restive territory.

CPJ issued two statements expressing concern about the filmmakers’ safety. In an August 16 press release welcoming their release, CPJ said, “We hope the OPM pledge means the group will never again seek to achieve its propaganda goals by kidnapping journalists.”

CPJ also called on rebel groups and state security forces in Indonesia to respect the right of all journalists to work without fear of harassment, abduction, or other reprisals.

August 11

Serambi Indonesia

Serambi Indonesia, the largest daily newspaper in Aceh Province, suspended publication under pressure from the separatist Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM).

GAM leaders were angered by an article about the massacre of 31 villagers in eastern Aceh that appeared in the August 10 edition of Serambi. The police held GAM responsible for the killings, while GAM blamed Indonesian security forces.

A GAM spokesman called the newspaper’s offices after the article was published and accused Serambi of siding with the government in its coverage of the massacre.

“I have forbidden [the newspaper] to publish lies,” a GAM spokesman told The Associated Press. “People here say they will burn down the building and kill workers.”

Representatives of GAM told Serambi management that they could not guarantee the safety of newspaper employees if they continued publishing, according to the Jakarta office of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance.

Aceh is the scene of a 26-year-old struggle between armed separatist rebels and Indonesian security forces. Journalists who report on the conflict routinely face pressure from all sides, including GAM, the police, and the Indonesian military.

In June, Serambi Indonesia was also forced to suspend operations temporarily, due in part to threats from GAM.

On August 24, Serambi resumed publication.

October 15

Medo Malianza, Metro TV
Agung Nugroho, Indosiar TV
Dadang, Reuters
Lamhot Aritonang, Pantur Daily

Police assaulted four local journalists covering an anti-American demonstration in front of the House of Representatives in Jakarta, according to Indonesian and international news sources.

The victims were: Malianza, a cameraman for Metro TV; Nugroho, a cameraman from Indosiar TV; Dadang, a Reuters photographer who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name; and Aritonang, a photographer from the newspaper Pantur Daily.

The police were trying to disperse a rally of some 1,500 people organized by several Islamic groups to protest U.S. military action in Afghanistan and demand that the Indonesian government sever diplomatic relations with the United States. After firing warning shots, police attacked the crowd using tear gas, water cannons, and clubs.

As Malianza filmed police officers vandalizing a car, police beat him and forced him to hand over the tape. During the melée, officers damaged several cars, including one owned by Reuters, according to the Jakarta Post. Police also seized a videotape from Nugroho.

After several local press organizations protested the actions, Jakarta police chief Sofjan Jacoeb formally apologized and returned the confiscated videotapes to Metro TV and Indosiar.