At the beginning of the military campaign it appeared that there would be a more open policy, by both the government and the military martial law administration in Aceh, toward media access and reporting of the war. Foreign correspondents, both resident and visiting, arrived in the first weeks of the operation, and were allowed access to the province. Indonesian journalists also deployed in large numbers, as both embedded correspondents traveling with military units and “unilateral” journalists who traveled independently.
In the first few weeks of the military operation some of the reporting focused on allegations of human rights abuses by Indonesian security forces in the province. The Indonesian military reacted defensively to the media allegations, and in at least two cases, threatened to sue media outlets over what they claimed were unsubstantiated charges. Rather than deal with the very real issue of unaccountable and undisciplined troops in Aceh, the government instead blamed and punished the media. As Ati Nurbaiti, head of Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), told Human Rights Watch:
One reason may be that journalists were finding abuses too quickly and easily. As one foreign correspondent told Human Rights Watch:
The Indonesian military has tried to ensure that any media coverage of the war supports the military’s official line. Using the U.S. program in Iraq to give its program legitimacy, to limit the independence of Indonesian journalists, the Indonesian military initiated a U.S.-style program of “embedding” journalists directly with military units in Aceh. Prior to deployment journalists are also given training in West Java on basic survival skills. The journalists are then wholly dependent on the units they are deployed with during their time in Aceh. The program also limits the contact these journalists are able to have with villagers in Aceh who may be unwilling to speak freely to journalists deployed with Indonesian troops.
Human Rights Watch has been told by two sources that Major General Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, Indonesia’s Armed Forces spokesperson, was behind this initiative and actively sought advice and guidance from the U.S. on how to manage the media in Aceh. The result has not only been the use of embedded journalists, but also the establishment of sophisticated media centers in both Banda Aceh and Lhokseumawe. Press conferences in the province are also video-conferenced daily to a parallel media center in Jakarta.
The military has succeeded in using embedding to keep journalists under its watchful eyes and under control. However, any hopes among media organizations that access would result in more objective news have proved forlorn. Embedded journalists have not been allowed to report freely on what they observe.
The practice has severely restricted the independence of Indonesian journalists. One of the Indonesian embedded journalists who joined the training in West Java prior to her deployment in Aceh told Human Rights Watch:
Another embedded newspaper journalist in Aceh told Human Rights Watch:
One of the embedded journalists told Human Rights Watch:
Independent journalists working in Aceh also have serious difficulties in their ability to move around freely. One Indonesian journalist told Human Rights Watch:
Another Indonesian journalist told Human Rights Watch:
Those who did not agree to be embedded have had great difficulties in reporting on the war. One Indonesian radio journalist told Human Rights Watch:
GAM has also intimidated journalists. While GAM has talked about maintaining media freedom in the province, in a press statement released on July 3 the GAM leadership appeared to threaten journalists, stating:
The statement did not suggest how it would determine if a journalist was covering the war “truthfully” or “in accordance with the journalistic code of ethics” or what it would do if a journalist was judged to fail either of these tests.
One Indonesian journalist told Human Rights Watch that, “Several times I received intimidation from GAM, if we didn’t confirm stories with them, they are really angry, through SMS [cellular telephone text messaging].”21
Early reports also indicated that GAM may have planned on specifically targeting embedded journalists. In an open letter issued on May 15, 2003, AJI expressed concerns that GAM had requested from them a list of all the embedded journalists. They also cited a statement from GAM spokesman, Teungku Isnandar Al Pase, who, referring to the embedded journalists, was quoted as saying, “journalists who are going to be working with TNI troops in the military operation … are considered as a group of journalists who do not understand the practice of a free press. This group which is listed will not receive security guarantees.”22
In May the private radio station Nikoya FM in Banda Aceh reportedly received a telephoned death threat from someone claiming to be a GAM commander. The caller threatened that GAM would kill a reporter if the station did not start carrying more balanced news.23
Human Rights Watch calls on GAM to clarify these statements, end any threats, and make it clear that it will ensure the freedom of movement and the security of all journalists in areas under its control and in any encounters it has with journalists elsewhere in Aceh.
Many journalists told Human Rights Watch that they had been fired upon while in Aceh, typically while traveling in vehicles.24 The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reported seven separate incidents between May 21 and May 27, 2003 in which unidentified men shot at members of the national and international media.25 On each occasion the reporters were traveling in clearly marked press vehicles. One Indonesian television journalist recounted one of these incidents:
It is unclear who was responsible for these attacks. Both Indonesia’s security forces and GAM have denied responsibility.
Andrew Marshall, a foreign correspondent for Time magazine, suggested that the Indonesian military was making use of civilian vehicles to intimidate the press:
The following cases highlight the serious danger and difficulties facing journalists trying to report on the situation in Aceh.
On June 17, 2003, Mohamad Jamaluddin’s body was found in a river in Kreung Cut village near Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh Province. Jamaluddin’s eyes and mouth had been covered with tape, his hands had been bound, and a rope with a stone attached to it had been tied around his neck.
Jamaluddin, a cameraman with the national state owned Television network TVRI, had been missing for almost a month. Media reports indicate that he was kidnapped on about May 20, a day after martial law started in Aceh province.28
Indonesia’s Press Council chairman Atmakusumah Astraatmadja immediately called for an independent investigation into Jamaluddin’s murder, and condemned the lack of protections for journalists in Aceh.29
No one has claimed responsibility for the abduction or murder of Jamaluddin.
At about midday on July 4, 2003, Alif Imam Nurlambang, an editor from Indonesia’s 68h radio station, was severely beaten by members of Indonesia’s security forces while reporting from Panton Luas in South Aceh. Alif had been in Aceh for three weeks and had been reporting about the conditions of the displaced population in South Aceh.
Alif says that on July 3 he had reported to the local military command, informing them that he was in the area and was planning on staying in South Aceh for three days. The following day Alif, his driver, and their guide entered Panton Luas. There was no military post there but they reported and gave their greetings at the police post. They experienced no problems and observed that the situation was calm.
Alif went to a local resident’s house to interview the owner. Alif had been at the house for around two hours when two military trucks and a Kopassus car filled with Kopassus, Brimob (mobile police brigade) and Marines arrived. Behind the truck was a Military Intelligence Services (SGI) car.30 The majority of those present were Kopassus troops. The soldiers kicked down the door of the house and pulled Alif and the guide outside. Alif’s driver was waiting in the car.
Alif identified himself as a journalist, but five of the soldiers proceeded to severely beat and kick him. One of the soldiers hit Alif in the back with an M-16 rifle butt while another threatened to shoot him. One of the policemen present told Alif “this is a ‘black’ area.31 No one is allowed here except GAM. So, whoever enters must be GAM.”
After beating Alif, the soldiers examined all the goods in the car, including his journalist identification card, satellite phone, and mobile phone. They interrogated him about numbers in his mobile phone address book, accusing him of carrying the numbers of a well-known GAM commander. When the soldiers finished questioning Alif, they released him.
In a press release issued the next day Radio 68h issued a short chronology of the incident and warned that “only if journalists are able to carry out their duties without being threatened with violence or kidnap…will the public be able to obtain clear and accurate information.” 32
Concerned about security conditions, Alif immediately left Aceh and returned to Jakarta. No soldier has been held accountable for the beating.
On June 29, 2003, a reporter and a cameraman from the RCTI television station were among a group of civilians kidnapped by GAM while working in Langsa, East Aceh. The two RCTI employees had been working in Aceh since the start of the military operations. The reporter, Ersa Siregar, cameraman Fery Santoro, their driver Rahmatsyah, and two civilians who were accompanying them went missing while driving on their way back to Lhokseumawe. The crew had radioed ahead to colleagues in Lhokseumawe to let them know they were to be expected back in the town by 8 o’clock that evening. By nightfall the van and crew had failed to appear.33
On July 3, Teungku Mansoor, GAM spokesman for East Aceh, announced that the crew was being held by GAM soldiers. He told an AFP reporter that, “the reason that we are holding them for questioning is that the Indonesian military have been using the press to conduct intelligence operations in Aceh.”34
The Indonesian military accused Ersa Siregar of being a pro-GAM reporter who was covering the war from behind GAM lines, and also insinuated that Ersa had voluntarily joined GAM and was therefore in a position to release himself.
On July 5, 2003, military forces discovered the missing RCTI minivan in a palm oil plantation in Peureulak, East Aceh. Military operation spokesman Lt. Col. Achmad Yani Basuki said:
This sentiment was echoed by Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political and security Affairs, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who stated “I hope Ersa will be cooperative. Nessen [an American who had been traveling with GAM, and, fearing arrest by Indonesian authorities, sought help] has been cooperative, so we hope that Ersa, as an Indonesian citizen, will be cooperative.”36
On July 6, in a widely publicized and broadcast meeting, RCTI deputy chief editor Imam Wachjudi and representatives from three Indonesian television stations and Kompas newspaper were allowed to visit the two abducted RCTI employees to check on their health and well being.37 Accompanied into GAM territory with an armed escort, Wachjudi was able to meet with both Siregar and Santoro, and declared them well and in good health.
In apparent embarrassment over the ease in which the media representatives were allowed access to the kidnapped crew, the four media representatives were then detained by the police the next day and questioned at length over the meeting and their contact with GAM.
GAM has claimed that while military operations continue the conditions to secure the release of the victims cannot be negotiated. In the meantime Ersa Siregar, Ferry Santoro, Syafrida, Soraya, and Rahmatsyah remain in GAM custody.38
Threats and angry statements from senior military officers have a chilling effect on journalists. Brigadier General Bambang Dharmono has been particularly abusive towards Indonesian journalists in the province. An Indonesian journalist told Human Rights Watch:
Another Indonesian radio journalist recounted a different episode:
Another Indonesian correspondent told Human Rights Watch:
Statements and incidents like those above resonate with journalists, particularly those who wish to report on the war impartially. Reporting on conflict is difficult enough without fear of government officers, but it is much more difficult in an environment of threats and intimidation. As one understated Indonesian journalist put it:
In addition to threats from senior commanders, journalists also face intimidation from soldiers guarding security posts in the field and troops on the road. One foreign correspondent told Human Rights Watch:
The threats against journalists have made Acehnese civilians reluctant to interact with the media. Such a culture of fear in Aceh is compounding the vacuum of information about conditions under martial law. Aceh’s civilians are now less likely to come forward with information if those they give it to do not even have security guarantees for themselves, let alone their sources.
One foreign correspondent for a wire agency in Jakarta told Human Rights Watch that, “people are petrified of talking to the foreign press for fear of reprisals.”45 An Indonesian correspondent covering the war in Aceh was more direct. He told Human Rights Watch:
Another Indonesian journalist concurred and told Human Rights Watch that people in Aceh were afraid to talk about rights violations to the press. He said, “Villagers always say ‘we don’t know who did it. If we blame GAM, GAM will come, if we blame TNI, TNI will come.’”47
One result of attacks, threats, intimidation, and pressure has been widespread self-censorship within the Indonesian media. In the face of pressure from military officers and some government figures to stem reporting critical of the TNI, often considered to be the equivalent of anti-nationalist or even anti-Indonesian reporting, journalists and even major media outlets have adjusted their coverage to reflect the military line.
Since the beginning of the war in May, news reports have become less and less critical of the military. Journalists and editors have all but stopped making direct accusations against security forces in Aceh. The overwhelming majority of local media have completely stopped reporting on statements or accusations cited directly from GAM sources. To protect themselves, Indonesian journalists who report on abuses often cite to international agencies or sources. Indonesian media also now no longer refer to the offensive in Aceh as a military operation, but instead increasingly call it the “integrated operation,” reflecting the military line that its operation in Aceh combine military, humanitarian, law enforcement, and local governance measures. One Jakarta foreign correspondent told Human Rights Watch “most local journalists are too afraid to report. Locals are now hiding behind agency reports.”49
In the first week of martial law, the Indonesian martial law commander in Aceh, Major General Endang Suwarya, specifically warned both foreign and domestic journalists to keep their coverage “accurate.” Clarifying the TNI position on accuracy, Suwarya told journalists in Aceh “there should be no reports from GAM and [no] reports that praise GAM.”50
One Indonesian journalist told Human Rights Watch that this message was taken very seriously and was implemented almost immediately:
A few days after Suwarya’s statement, TNI spokesman Major General Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin warned the media that the TNI would take legal measures against media establishments that ran unfounded reports on the military operation in Aceh. He also warned that “if reports over [alleged abuses] by TNI members could not be proven, TNI leadership would take legal action against the media,” adding that the government would also take legal action against media outlets that published “unfavorable” coverage about the operations in Aceh.53
For instance, in response to press reports about the execution-style murder of civilians in the village of Mapa Mamplan, Sjamsoeddin announced that the military intended to sue the Indonesian newspaper Koran Tempo for running the story. He added that Agence France-Presse might also be sued for the same story. Sjamsoeddin told the Jakarta Post: “We will officially sue Koran Tempo newspaper because it must be held accountable for the headline ... Later development does not rule out the possibility of suing AFP.”54
The military response to the allegations was to set up a joint military-press investigation into the incident, to verify whether or not the summary executions took place and who was responsible for it. Two soldiers and two journalists returned to the scene of the executions and undertook further investigations. After the investigation, the military concluded that all the villagers killed, including the three boys, were GAM spies.55 Even if true, this would not justify the summary execution of the villagers. However, one journalist told Human Rights Watch that the investigation had not been impartial and that witnesses were intimidated into retracting their original testimony.
The journalist told Human Rights Watch:
The military is very sensitive about information of abuses being published. Negative reporting on the war may resonate with members of the Indonesian public who, although largely supportive of the military operation in Aceh, also retain a great deal of distrust at Indonesia’s corrupt and ill-disciplined armed forces. One foreign television correspondent based in Jakarta explained, “The military are very aware that what could break them is the press, for example if there is footage of atrocities. Sjafrie [Sjamsoeddin] now has a really important role in controlling what goes out.”57
In May the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that military officials had issued warnings to the newspaper Serambi Indonesia and Metro TV for carrying reports considered favorable to GAM.58
Citing pressure on editorial policy in Jakarta, one Indonesian TV reporter in Jakarta told Human Rights Watch:
Another Indonesian television reporter in Jakarta told Human Rights Watch:
On May 21, 2003, SCTV aired a special dialogue program featuring an interview with an Acehnese man who claimed that he had been tortured by the Indonesian military in the 1990s, during the last military emergency in Aceh, known as DOM (Daerah Operasi Militer, Military Operations Area). The producer of the program has since been fired by his station, leading to an uproar among Indonesian press associations and protests against SCTV.
The producer in question, Dandhy Dwi Laksono, told Human Rights Watch his story:
After the initial airing of the program, Dandhy continued to work at SCTV, despite the military protests. He says that he was subjected to unusual and unprecedented restrictions on all of his subsequent work.
Dandhy’s case has been extensively publicized in Indonesia. Many in Indonesia believe that he was fired over his reporting on Aceh. SCTV denies the charges. Nur Jamen, told the press that “it was not a dismissal, Dandhy was never promoted to permanent employee. His six-month contract was not extended after we appraised him. It's nothing to do with his Aceh story.”65
9 "Covering both sides a tough challenge in Aceh war," The Jakarta Post, May 23, 2003.
10 Human Rights Watch interview with Ati Nurbaiti, Head of AJI (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen, Alliance of Independent Journalists), Jakarta, June 27, 2003.
11 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], foreign newspaper correspondent, Jakarta, July 3, 2003.
12 NKRI (Negara Kesatuan Republic Indonesia, Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia).
13 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian newspaper journalist, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
14 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian newspaper journalist, Jakarta, July 3, 2003.
15 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian radio journalist, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
16 Human Rights Watch telephone interview [name withheld], Indonesian news website journalist, Aceh, July 7, 2003.
17 KODIM (Komando Distrik Militer, Military District Command).
18 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian radio journalist, Jakarta, June 30, 2003
19 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian radio journalist, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
20 Acheh-Sumatra National Liberation Front Teuntara Neugara Atjeh (TNA), Press Release, July 3, 2003. Aceh is sometimes spelled Acheh.
21 Human Rights Watch telephone interview [name withheld], Indonesian news website journalist, Aceh, July 7, 2003.
22 Open Letter, “AJI Jakarta kepada jurnalis berseragam TNI,” AJI Jakarta, May 15, 2003.
23 Committee to Protect Journalists, “Indonesia: Military curbs press coverage in Aceh,” May 23, 2003.
24 “Military Inquires into Aceh shootings,” The Sydney Morning Herald, May 26, 2003; “Don't shoot the messengers,” The Jakarta Post, May 29, 2003.
25 Committee to Protect Journalists, “Indonesia: Journalists attacked by gunmen in Aceh,” May 29, 2003.
26 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian television reporter, Jakarta, July 7, 2003.
27 Andrew Marshall, “Dead Silence: Indonesia's military is being given a free hand to strangle Aceh,” Time, June 9, 2003.
28 Reporters without Borders, “Indonesia: Cameraman murdered in Aceh,” June 26, 2003.
29 Tiarma Siboro, “Protests mount over the killing of 'TVRI' cameraman,” The Jakarta Post, June 21, 2003.
30 SGI are Indonesia's Military Intelligence Services.
31 The Indonesian military have color-coded areas of Aceh to indicate the level of security in each area.
32 “68H journalist beaten in Aceh,” Press Release, Radio News Agency 68H, July 4, 2003; Chronology of Beating, received via phone from Alif Imam Nurlambang, July 4, 2003; Muninggar Sri Saraswati, “Military troops' brutal assault on journalist in Aceh revealed,” The Jakarta Post, July 5, 2003.
33 Committee to Protect Journalists, “RCTI Journalists Missing in Aceh,” Letter to President Megawati Sukarnoputri, July 2, 2003; International Federation of Journalists, Letter to General Endriartono Sutarto, July 4, 2003; “'RCTI' journalists disappear in Aceh,” The Jakarta Post, July 1, 2003; Tiarma Siboro and Nani Farida, “Fate of `RCTI' crew missing in Aceh remains unclear,” The Jakarta Post, July 3, 2003.
34 “Wartawan RCTI Ada di Markas GAM,” Tempo, July 3, 2003; “Aceh rebels claim to hold missing RCTI crew and two civilians,” Agence-France Presse, July 3, 2003.
35 Aan Suryana, “12 rebels killed in Aceh, 'RCTI' minivan found,” The Jakarta Post, July 6, 2003.
36 “TNI Duga Wartawan RCTI di Sarang GAM,” Tempo, July 2, 2003; “Yudhoyono Berharap Kerjasama Ersa Siregar,” Tempo, July 16, 2003.
37 “Wapemred RCTI Bertemu Pihak GAM,” Tempo, July 7, 2003; A'an Suryana and Tiarma Siboro, “Journalists questioned over ‘RCTI,’” The Jakarta Post, July 9, 2003.
38 One possible theory for the kidnappings is GAM initially wanted to kidnap Syafrida and Soraya as both women are wives of Indonesian naval officers. The Indonesian military has a history of detaining wives of GAM fighters, indicating that this may have been a retaliatory kidnapping by GAM.
39 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian radio journalist, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
40 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian radio journalist, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
41 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian journalist, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
42 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian radio journalist, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
43 In mid-May media reports implicated the Indonesian military in the summary execution of six civilians in Cot Raboe, including two twelve-year old boys. See Human Rights Watch, “Aceh Under Martial Law: Human Rights Under Fire,” June 5, 2003; “Indonesian troops accused of massacre," The Guardian, May 22, 2003; "Children massacred by military in Aceh," The Age, May 23, 2003.
44 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], foreign newspaper correspondent, Jakarta, July 3, 2003.
45 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], foreign wire correspondent, Jakarta, June 27, 2003.
46 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian radio journalist, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
47 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian television reporter, Jakarta, July 7, 2003.
48 Interview with Todung Mulya Lubis, “Aceh war sparks a culture of fear within media industry,” The Jakarta Post, June 18, 2003.
49 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], foreign wire correspondent, Jakarta, June 27, 2003.
50 U.N. Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Activity : Daily Situation Report on Aceh No.7, May 22, 2003; T. Yulianti, “Liputan Pers tentang Operasi Militer,” Suara Pembaruan, May 27, 2003.
51 “Indonesia Raya” is Indonesia’s national anthem.
52 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian radio journalist, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
53 “Pembatasan Pers Dapat Jadi Bumerang bagi Militer,” Sinar Harapan, May 24, 2003; “Media asked to be responsible,” The Jakarta Post, May 24, 2003.
54 “TNI to sue ‘Koran Tempo’ over alleged false report,” The Jakarta Post, May 28, 2003.
55 “Military inquires into Aceh shootings,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 26, 2003; “Indonesian army claims shot boys were spies,” South China Morning Post, May 28, 2003.
56 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian newspaper journalist, Jakarta, July 3, 2003.
57 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], foreign television reporter, Jakarta, June 27, 2003.
58 Committee to Protect Journalists, “Indonesia: Military curbs press coverage in Aceh,” May 23, 2003.
59 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian television producer, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
60 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian television reporter, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
61 Pangdam (Panglima Daerah Militer, Military Area Commander).
62 SMS – Cellular phone text messaging.
63 Roadside artists.
64 Human Rights Watch interview with Dandhy Dwi Laksono, Jakarta, June 30, 2003.
65 Moch. N. Kurniawan, “Journalist dismissed after Aceh interview,” The Jakarta Post, June 16, 2003; Robert Go, “Journalist: I was fired over torture report,” The Straits Times, June 18, 2003; “Terpental karena Aceh?,” Tempo, June 29, 2003.