U.S. journalist to face trial on immigration charges

New York, July 18, 2003—
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the decision by Indonesian authorities to prosecute free-lance journalist William Nessen, a U.S. citizen who was arrested on June 24 after spending weeks reporting from rebel-held territory in war-torn Aceh Province. Aceh state prosecutor Tengku Lutfi told journalists today that Nessen has been charged with immigration violations and is due to face trial next week.

“The Indonesian government appears to be stretching out the detention of William Nessen as a way of putting all foreign reporters on notice that they are not free to report independently on the war in Aceh,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “The various rules and restrictions that the Indonesian military has imposed on journalists in Aceh are clearly excessive and severely limit coverage of the war.”

Since the launch of the Indonesian military campaign in Aceh on May 19—intended to crush a long-running separatist insurgency there—the government has introduced a series of onerous press regulations. Among the myriad restrictions is an order forbidding journalists from reporting on statements made by the rebel Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym as GAM, or even from reporting anything that may be construed as supportive of the separatists.

Another set of rules requires foreign journalists to apply to the Foreign Ministry for permission to visit Aceh, then secure clearance from the Justice Ministry, and then, upon arrival in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, to register with both the military and the police. In practice, however, the government is not processing the required permits, and so journalists are being kept out of Aceh.

Nessen, who had a journalist’s visa, told CPJ that he was writing a book about the Aceh conflict and gathering material for a documentary. He was traveling with GAM rebels before the fighting broke out and new martial law regulations went into force in Aceh. After Nessen came under fire from Indonesian security forces, CPJ and U.S. diplomats began efforts to negotiate his safe passage out of GAM territory, and out of Aceh. However, when Nessen finally left rebel territory on June 24, he was first interrogated by military authorities and later transferred to police custody. He has been detained in Banda Aceh for three and a half weeks.

“CPJ calls for Nessen’s immediate and unconditional release,” Cooper said. “Immigration laws must not be exploited to control and punish journalists.”