On June 23, 2003, Indonesian President Megawati Soekarnoputri told Japan’s National Press Council that press freedom in Indonesia was the most outstanding achievement of the post-Soeharto reform movement. President Megawati was quoted as saying that, “the freedom that they [journalists] enjoy may be even greater than anywhere else in the world.”8
The president’s remarks were disingenuous. One week before this statement, she had issued one of Indonesia’s most restrictive decrees on media access in the post-Soeharto era. Presidential Decree No. 43/2000, issued on June 16, effectively curbed foreign and national media access to Aceh province. Subsequent related decrees, ambiguities over their implementation, and deliberate bureaucratic delays obstructed access for foreign and some national correspondents reporting on the war in Aceh.
However, legal restrictions constitute only a small part of the problem. Human Rights Watch has uncovered a pervasive pattern of intimidation, abuse, and censorship of journalists, both foreign and national, trying to report on the current conflict in Aceh. These developments have led to limited and skewed coverage of the conflict, with Indonesia’s domestic media under enormous political pressure to censor their reporting of what is going on in the province.
Outside of Aceh, the war is popular in Indonesia. President Megawati’s popularity nationally has increased enormously through her nationalistic stance and strategy on maintaining Indonesia’s territorial integrity through the use of force in Aceh. Her decision to impose a state of military emergency, the highest level of emergency possible under Indonesian law, has widely been interpreted as an act of political decisiveness previously unseen in her administration. With upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2004, the main opposition parties and aspiring presidential candidates have embraced a nationalist agenda that eschews criticism of the war in Aceh. Most in Indonesia remain unhappy that East Timor was able to gain independence. Few politicians are prepared to criticize a war against a separatist movement, GAM, which has been explained as necessary to retain Indonesia’s sovereignty over Aceh.
The government’s current stance of viewing the conflict purely in “separatist” terms sharply limits the space within Indonesia for the consideration of possible political solutions to the conflict. Addressing past human rights violations by Indonesia’s security forces, building a credible justice system in the province, allowing for a less corrupt and more transparent local government, and prospects for significantly decreasing the military presence in Aceh are noticeably absent from today’s agenda and the roadmap for peace in Aceh. In many cases, Indonesian journalists who have raised such issues or sought to report impartially and accurately on the conduct of the war have faced serious consequences, as detailed below.
7 Rita A. Widiadana, “Megawati tries to ease tension with media,” The Jakarta Post, February 10, 2003.
8 Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, “Megawati boasts about RI’s press freedom before Japanese media,” The Jakarta Post, June 24, 2003.