The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned about the safety of American free-lance journalist William Nessen, who is traveling with separatist rebels in the restive Indonesian province of Aceh, where a massive military campaign is underway. The group Nessen is with has come under direct attack from Indonesian government soldiers, and his life is currently at great risk.
Nessen has been covering the insurgency in Aceh for years and is known for having rare access to rebels with the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym as GAM. A free-lance reporter and photographer, he has contributed to such publications as The Boston Globe, The Sydney Morning Herald, and the British newspaper The Independent.
Nessen last spoke to his wife, Shadia Marhadan, at about 5:30 p.m., local time, using a satellite phone. During this conversation, he said that when he attempted to surrender to government soldiers, troops opened fire, forcing him to flee with the rebels for safety. “I could hear gunfire, and then the line went dead,” Marhadan told CPJ.
Yesterday, Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya, the head of the martial law administration in Aceh, told a press conference that he was aware that an American journalist was trapped in rebel-held territory. However, Suwarya added that it was up to the reporter to extract himself from danger as, “We cannot guarantee the safety of foreign journalists in Aceh,” according to The Associated Press and the regional daily Serambi Indonesia.
After the military offensive was launched on May 19, Suwarya stated that he would no longer allow the views of GAM to be reported by the media. Indonesian authorities have said repeatedly that Suwarya has the sole discretion to control the media in Aceh. Authorities also have announced their intention to ban all foreign journalists from reporting in Aceh, an order that has yet to go into effect.
Diplomatic sources told CPJ that Nessen appears to be “in a great deal of danger” and that efforts are underway to secure his safe departure from the province. Marhadan and others have sought assistance for Nessen from the United States Embassy in Jakarta. The Indonesian government has offered no assurances yet about his safety.
Nessen has press accreditation issued by the Indonesian government, according to Marhadan and colleagues who have seen the credentials. But Indonesian Information Ministry official Wahid Supriyadi denied that Nessen was an accredited journalist. “As far as we are concerned he is a tourist, and he has no right to be there,” Supriyadi told CPJ.
Last week, soldiers in Aceh shot two German tourists, one of whom was killed. An official inquiry into that incident is underway.
As an organization dedicated to the protection of our colleagues worldwide, CPJ calls on the Your Excellency to ensure that the Indonesian military guarantees Nessen’s safety and acts immediately to allow him safe passage out of Aceh.
The Indonesian government has a responsibility to ensure that civilians, including journalists, are not harmed during military operations.
We thank you for your attention to these urgent matters and await your response.
Ann K. Cooper