“Press conditions in Aceh are going from bad to worse.”
New York, July 7, 2003—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the recent assault on radio reporter Alif Imam Nurlambang by Indonesian security officers in the northwestern province of Aceh, where a massive Indonesian military offensive is under way to crush a long-running separatist insurgency. Meanwhile, CPJ is also outraged by the ongoing detention of an Indonesian television crew by the rebel Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym as GAM.
“Press conditions in Aceh are going from bad to worse,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “Each week seems to bring more news of journalists being harassed, detained, or assaulted for their work.”
On Friday, July 4, Alif, who works for the private Indonesian radio station 68H (Radio Namlapanha), was reporting in Panton Luas, a village in South Aceh, when Indonesian security forces drove into the area. The security forces entered the village with military vehicles carrying members of Indonesia’s Kopassus special forces unit, marines, and paramilitary police, known as Brimob, said a statement issued by 68H. Troops dragged Alif and his local guide out of the home of a villager and began assaulting the reporter. Though Alif identified himself as a journalist, the troops kicked and beat him, and one soldier used an M-16 rifle butt to hit the reporter across his back, said the statement.
Alif had been interviewing local residents about a recent exodus of area villagers. Around 40,000 Acehnese have fled their homes since the Indonesian military launched its campaign on May 19, according to The Associated Press.
In an interview with 68H, Brig. Gen. Bambang Darmono, commander of military operations in Aceh, pledged that the army would investigate the assault on Alif.
Television crew held by rebels
In a separate incident, CPJ is deeply concerned about the safety of RCTI journalists Ersa Siregar and Ferry Santoro, their driver, and two local guides—who were first reported missing on June 29 and later revealed to be in the custody of GAM rebels in East Aceh. In a July 3 phone conversation with the Jakarta Post newspaper, GAM spokesperson Tengku Mansur confirmed that the five were being held in a rebel camp in East Aceh’s Peureulak District and said that “their release will depend on developments in the military operation here.”
On Sunday, July 6, RCTI representatives met with Siregar, who is a senior reporter for the channel, and Santoro, a cameraman, by traveling into GAM territory with a rebel escort. RCTI broadcast footage from this meeting today and confirmed that the journalists are in good health.
The Indonesian military command in Aceh has issued an ultimatum warning that GAM has until 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 8, to release the five people or face attack—a threat CPJ fears may further jeopardize the safety of the journalists and their colleagues.
“It is the responsibility of the GAM rebels to release the journalists and their companions immediately and unconditionally,” said Cooper. “And it is the responsibility of Indonesian security forces to do everything possible to protect civilian lives, including the lives of journalists.”
Onerous press restrictions
In the seven weeks since the military campaign began, Indonesian authorities have imposed a series of onerous regulations on the press in Aceh, arguing that such restrictions are necessary to ensure journalists’ safety. However, Indonesian journalists and foreign correspondents have told CPJ that the media regulations—combined with access restrictions and harassment by Indonesian security forces—make independent reporting on the conflict nearly impossible.
One foreign correspondent, American free-lance reporter William Nessen, was arrested after spending several weeks covering the war from GAM territory. Indonesian military authorities had urged Nessen repeatedly to leave rebel territory, where he had come under fire, and to turn himself in to government officials. However, when he did so, on June 24, he was first interrogated by the military and then put in police custody.
He remains in detention on suspicion of violating the country’s immigration law.