(New York) — The Indonesian government has blocked Indonesian and foreign correspondents from covering the military campaign in Aceh, where gross human rights violations are taking place, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Indonesia’s security forces and separatist guerrillas have intimidated journalists in the northwestern province.
The 33-page report, “Aceh Under Martial Law: Muzzling the Messengers: Attacks and Restrictions on the Media,” documents violations of press freedom in Aceh after the Indonesian government on May 19 declared a state of military emergency in the province and renewed its war there against the armed, separatist Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM). On November 6 the government extended martial law in Aceh, due to expire November 19, for another six months.
“Whenever the press has pulled away the shroud of secrecy around Aceh, it has exposed serious abuses,” said Saman Zia-Zarifi, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “As the government intensifies its military campaign, press access to Aceh becomes even more crucial for providing information on how civilians are surviving the war.”
Reports from Aceh in June and July highlighted several instances of executions of civilians by the Indonesian military, widespread displacement of civilians, and a lack of basic necessities such as food, healthcare and access to education.
Since martial law began, Indonesian security forces have verbally and physically intimidated journalists in Aceh. Military officials have also arbitrarily detained correspondents in the field. In one widely reported case, members of Indonesia´s elite special forces, Kopassus, on July 4 beat an Indonesian radio journalist who was reporting on the plight of Acehnese civilians fleeing the military campaign.
Human Rights Watch stated that GAM had intimidated journalists. GAM has abducted two reporters on June 29 and has refused to release them. Even while riding in clearly marked press vehicles in Aceh, numerous journalists have also been shot at by unknown gunmen.
“The Indonesian government has claimed that it is protecting journalists by barring them from Aceh, but its actions show that it is more concerned about hiding what the troops are doing,” Zia-Zarifi said. “In Aceh a free and safe press is crucial to provide some accountability for violations by the Indonesian military and GAM.”
The Indonesian government has severely restricted access to Aceh for foreign correspondents through a series of regulatory measures issued since June. Pressure on Indonesian reporters has also resulted in self-censorship among Indonesia´s press corps, ensuring an absence of critical reporting on the conflict.
The government has denied access to Aceh to diplomats, independent international observers and international human rights organizations. It has blocked the United Nations and nongovernmental humanitarian agencies from working in the province.
The current Indonesian military offensive in Aceh began on May 19 after a six-month ceasefire failed to resolve the longstanding conflict in the province. The Aceh offensive is Indonesia´s largest military campaign since the country´s invasion of East Timor in 1975. The operation involves an estimated 30,000 troops, who are opposed by approximately 5,000 armed members of GAM.