A shroud of secrecy has enveloped Indonesia’s Aceh province since the Indonesian government renewed its war there against the armed, separatist Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM) on May 19, 2003. This shroud parts occasionally to provide glimpses of vulnerable civilians caught in a violent military campaign with inadequate humanitarian relief.
Although information is never more important than during wartime, troubling glimpses are all that is possible right now. The Indonesian government and military have effectively barred nearly all independent and impartial observers (including diplomats), as well as international humanitarian aid workers, from the province. Those allowed into or to stay in Aceh are generally not permitted to venture beyond the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.
These moves have succeeded in making the war in Aceh largely invisible, helping Indonesia achieve its goal of decreasing the interest of the international and Indonesian media and thereby reducing the potential for pressure to cease its military operations.
A lack of reporting, however, does not mean a decrease in violations. If anything, the absence of independent observers, particularly in light of the history of abuses in Aceh, gives reason for concern about what the people of Aceh may now be experiencing. This report provides a comprehensive account of the reasons for that absence: attacks and intimidation of journalists by both government security forces and GAM forces, and comprehensive regulatory measures from Jakarta restricting access to Aceh for national and international correspondents.
What little is known about conditions in Aceh is disturbing. Preliminary investigations in Aceh by Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) have identified several areas in which government forces and GAM have seriously violated the rights of the Acehnese since the war resumed. According to Komnas HAM, these violations include summary executions, arbitrary detentions, torture of civilians, sexual violence, forced displacement, and targeted burning of school buildings. On October 19, the Indonesian military reported that more than 900 GAM fighters and 66 Indonesian soldiers and police had been killed since the declaration of martial law in May.3 The military also stated that over 300 civilians have been killed in the fighting, while a further 108 were missing.
The lack of media and other access means there is no way of independently confirming these figures, or of assessing the number of civilians who have died. The hard reality is that at present no one, except perhaps the Indonesian military, knows what is happening to Aceh’s civilian population.
One reason Indonesia has restricted access to journalists may be that initial media reports of the war painted a grim picture. In the first two weeks of martial law, while journalists still could report with some freedom, newspapers reported extra-judicial executions of civilians by the Indonesian military. The most widely reported incident took place on May 21, just two days after martial law was imposed, when Indonesian soldiers reportedly dragged a group of villagers from their homes in the village of Mapa Mamplam. According to eyewitnesses, the soldiers lined the victims up and killed each one execution-style. Among those killed were three boys, aged eleven, thirteen, and fourteen.4
Such reports have become increasingly rare, not because of an improvement in the conduct of the war, but because the messengers have been successfully muzzled. The foreign press corps has been successfully restricted through denial of permits to travel to Aceh, arbitrary bureaucratic delays in processing authorization to the province, and fears among journalists that critical reporting will lead to future restrictions on visas and access, even for resident foreign correspondents.5
In addition to denying access, the Indonesian government and military and GAM have used other, even more troubling tactics to manage the news. Indonesian journalists have faced the most intense pressure and greatest risks in covering the war in Aceh. Both Indonesian security forces and members of GAM have engaged in physical and verbal intimidation of correspondents in the field and editors in Jakarta. Field correspondents have been arbitrarily detained by the martial law administration in Aceh. GAM has abducted and continues to hold two journalists. In another, as yet uninvestigated case, an Indonesian television cameraman was abducted, tortured, and killed in the province. One radio journalist was severely beaten by members of Kopassus, Indonesia’s elite special operations troops. Numerous journalists have been shot at while driving in clearly marked press vehicles.
Ongoing security hazards and continued intimidation have made it difficult, at times impossible, for Indonesian journalists to critically report on abuses by members of either the Indonesian security forces or GAM. Nationalism and pressures on the media have made it difficult to engage in critical reporting of government policies in Aceh. Abuses against the domestic press have led to comprehensive self-censorship of critical reporting about the war within Indonesia, resulting in the war dropping off even Indonesia’s front pages.
Human Rights Watch fears that the lack of access and monitoring by independent observers, including a free press, has created a climate in which armed forces on both sides believe they can act with impunity and commit abuses, unreported and away from the public eye. An immediate imperative is removing far-reaching restrictions on access to and within Aceh.
The cumulative effect of the violations described in this report is to undermine the development of a free, objective, and professional media in Indonesia. While the dearth of international reporting on the war is quite apparent, more pernicious are the lessons being taught to Indonesia’s still fledgling, post-Soeharto, media: controversial coverage is likely to result in threats to physical security; where the subject matter of a story involves the security forces, stories should be vetted before publication with government or military officials; and the imperative of self-censorship if one is to avoid unwelcome consequences. Alarmingly, it now appears that the clampdown on reporting on Aceh is part of a broader pattern of silencing Indonesia’s nascent free press.6
Silencing or censoring the media will only fuel misinformation and create conditions for human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. While Indonesia may believe that it is now winning the media war, in the end there will be no way to hide the full extent of deaths and injuries, to both civilians and soldiers, in Aceh. If the toll is high, the reaction of domestic and international opinion is likely to be negative. The cost to Indonesia, its military and government may then be significant.
Human Rights Watch conducted over one hundred interviews with a cross-section of individuals involved in the war in Aceh. Those interviewed included foreign and national media representatives, national and international non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives, U.N. officials, international embassy representatives, and Indonesian government officials based in Jakarta, North Sumatra, and Aceh. Highlighting the precarious position of public commentators in Indonesia, and due to ongoing security concerns and visa worries, almost no one interviewed was prepared to talk on the record to Human Rights Watch about their experiences or analysis of the current situation in Aceh. Their testimonies highlight a pattern of abuse on media freedom with regard to the war in Aceh.
1 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], international aid worker, [location withheld], Indonesia, June 17, 2003.
2 Human Rights Watch interview with Heru Hendratmoko, Program Director, Radio 68h, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
3 The latest figures appeared in “Aceh toll rises,” Laksamana.net, October 19, 2003.
4 “Youths massacred in Aceh Village,” BBC News World Edition, May 23, 2003; “Indonesia sends hundreds more troops to Aceh, says 29 rebels killed,” Agence France-Presse, May 22, 2003; “Young Blood,” Time Asia, June 2, 2003.
5 Human Rights Watch is concerned that the Indonesian military may follow the Aceh precedent in other parts of Indonesia. One worrying sign is that there may be moves by the government of Indonesia to implement similar restrictions on foreign correspondents who wish to travel to Papua, in the easternmost part of Indonesia’s archipelago, which is also facing an armed insurgency. On September 17, 2003, two foreign reporters were temporarily detained in Timika, Papua, for not having special permits. The police in Papua initially told the detained reporters that they were not allowed to report outside of Jakarta, let alone in Papua. The detention lasted for at least two days before the journalists were finally returned to Jakarta.
6 A few recent examples include: On October 27, 2003 Supratman, a senior editor of the daily Jakarta newspaper Rakyat Merdeka, was found guilty by a Jakarta court for insulting President Megawati. Supratman had been charged under articles 134 and 137 of Kitab Undang-Undang Hukum Pidana (KUHP, Indonesian Criminal Code). The judge in the case handed down a six-month suspended jail sentence and one year of probation; On September 9, 2003, Karim Paputungan, also an editor with Rakyat Merdeka, was found guilty of defamation and sentenced to five months in prison by the South Jakarta District Court. The charges and conviction relate to a caricature of convicted Indonesian House of Representatives speaker, Akbar Tandjung, which appeared in a January 8, 2003, edition of the newspaper; Tempo is also currently besieged by a host of damaging lawsuits brought by business tycoon Tommy Winata, after an article appeared in the magazine criticizing the businessman. On March 8, 2003, a mob of about two hundred of his supporters attacked Tempo’s offices. During police negotiations to calm the situation down three senior Tempo staff were beaten by some of the mob members, in front of police officers, inside the Central Jakarta police station. One of the attackers was later acquitted of all charges.