U.S. Journalist turns himself over to military

Bangkok, June 24, 2003
—American free-lance journalist William Nessen turned himself over to Indonesian military authorities in the strife torn province of Aceh this morning, ending several days of tense negotiations.

For several weeks, Nessen, 46, had been traveling with the separatist Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym as GAM. Indonesian military authorities had demanded he leave rebel territory and surrender to them, which Nessen did this morning. Looking thin but healthy, Nessen walked out of the jungle this morning and was met in the north Aceh village of Paya Dua by a senior U.S. diplomat and Gen. Sjafrie Samsuddin, the chief of information for the Indonesian military.

Nessen, who contributes to The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe, agreed to be questioned by the military in the presence of a U.S. diplomat as part of the terms of his leaving the guerrilla redoubt. The turnover was negotiated by the American embassy and the Indonesian military. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) was also involved in talks with Indonesian authorities to guarantee the journalist’s safety.

Indonesian military officers have said publicly that if Nessen was found to be a “spy,” he would be prosecuted. More senior officers, however, told CPJ privately that the military considers Nessen to be a journalist and that they have no evidence that he has committed any crime.

“Our biggest concern was Nessen’s security,” said A. Lin Neumann, CPJ’s Asia consultant, who was involved in talks with the Indonesian government. “He is an accredited journalist, with a proper working visa, and he simply got caught up in a bad situation. We are glad that the military has kept up their end of the bargain and that he has left the area safely.”

Nessen crossed over to GAM’s lines shortly before the Indonesian government declared martial law in the province and began a military offensive on May 19. [Click here for more details: http://www.cpj.org/protests/03ltrs/Indonesia10june03pl.html.]

Since the start of the offensive, the military has imposed progressively harsher restrictions on journalists wanting to cover the conflict, requiring both local and foreign correspondents to receive special permission to enter Aceh. Last Friday, Gen Sjafrie said that journalists were forbidden from entering rebel areas.

At least one journalist has been killed in Aceh since the conflict began, while others have been shot and many have been restricted from covering the area. [Click here for more details: http://www.cpj.org/protests/03ltrs/Indonesia18june03pl.html.] Today, the Jakarta Post said that three journalists working for foreign news agencies had been told by the military to leave the province.

The military also has borrowed a tactic from the United States war in Iraq by “embedding” local journalists with military units in Aceh. Journalists in Jakarta have complained to CPJ that the program is restrictive and limits the ability of the press to get a fair picture of the war.

Nessen told CPJ by cell phone while he was with the rebels that he feared for his safety and worried that soldiers might target him. He said he narrowly avoided injury during one firefight several days ago, abandoning his cameras and other equipment as he fled with rebels into the jungle.

Military authorities have reviewed videotapes they seized in that encounter, telling CPJ Nessen’s work “appeared to be journalistic.”

Nessen has asked that his tapes and equipment be returned and that he be allowed to leave the country as soon as possible. Military authorities told CPJ that they have “no problem” with Nessen leaving Indonesia, but the decision does not ultimately rest with the military since police authorities have the ability to arrest and charge individuals with a crime.

Following several hours of questioning by the military today, Nessen was remanded to the custody of the Indonesian police in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. Police were to question him in the presence of U.S. diplomats.