U.S. journalist on trial in Aceh Province

New York, July 23, 2003—American free-lance journalist William Nessen went on trial today in the restive Indonesian province of Aceh for immigration violations. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.

After the prosecution presented four witnesses, the hearing was adjourned until July 30.

Nessen, 46, angered Indonesian military authorities by remaining with anti-government rebels even after the launch of a massive military offensive in Aceh that began on May 19. Facing an ultimatum from the military and threats to his safety, he surrendered to government troops on June 24 and was detained by police.

CPJ has strongly protested Nessen’s imprisonment, noting that his prosecution is part of a broader effort by the Indonesian government to control reporting on the war in Aceh. [For more information, read CPJ’s special report]. An accredited correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, Nessen has told CPJ that he was writing a book and gathering footage for a documentary about the separatist Free Aceh Movement (known by its Indonesian acronym as GAM).

Although Nessen holds a valid journalist’s visa, authorities have charged him with misrepresenting the purpose of his journalistic work. Prosecutors also say Nessen acted illegally by covering the guerrilla’s side of the war.

When the martial law administration assumed control over Aceh at the outset of the military campaign in mid-May, officials banned reporting any statements made by GAM rebels and any coverage that appears to favor the separatist movement. More recently, the central government has imposed a series of restrictive regulations that effectively prevents most foreign correspondents from traveling to Aceh to report on the conflict.

Sources close to the case told CPJ they are relieved that Nessen is only being charged with technical immigration violations, a sign that he may be deported even if convicted. Senior officers had earlier threatened to charge Nessen with being a spy for the rebels, an accusation the journalist strongly denies.

Nessen is reportedly in good spirits and has not been physically mistreated during his detention. He is being held without bail in police headquarters in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, but he has had access to legal counsel and U.S. Embassy officials.