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IV. Legal and Bureaucratic Restrictions on Journalists

Many of our members have reported from numerous conflict zones around the world and find the restrictions being imposed in Aceh amongst the most restrictive ever encountered.66

—Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club letter to the Government of Indonesia

A. Restrictions on Foreign Media

On June 4, 2003, Indonesian soldiers shot a German husband and wife while they were camping on a beach in Aceh. The man died, while his wife sustained a bullet injury to her ankle.67 The Indonesian military claimed that they suspected the two were GAM rebels, as they had failed to respond to calls to leave their tent on the beach.

The Indonesian government used this incident to justify a comprehensive clampdown on access to Aceh by all foreigners, including international humanitarian workers and foreign correspondents. The government claimed it was a security measure to ensure that no other foreigners were caught up, or injured, in the fighting.

On June 7, the clampdown on the media began in earnest. Police detained two Malaysian New Straits Times correspondents and questioned them for almost twelve hours before deporting them to Kuala Lumpur. Shamsul Akmar and Abdul Razak had arrived in Banda Aceh on May 29 after obtaining a press card issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jakarta. They had also reported to the martial law administration in Banda Aceh upon their arrival. The police claimed, however, that the two journalists had failed to get permission to cover the province from the Foreign Information Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the Indonesian police.68

B. Bureaucratic Restrictions on Foreign Journalists

The enforcement of restrictions on the ground preceded more comprehensive regulatory measures from Jakarta. On June 16, 2003, President Megawati issued Presidential Decree No. 43/2003 detailing new regulations on the activities of foreigners in Aceh. This Decree states in section 3 that:

  1. Media activities by foreign journalists and correspondents for foreign media in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam Province69 can only be carried out after obtaining approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on behalf of the President as the Central Military Emergency Authority.
  2. Media activities by national journalists for the national press in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam Province can only be carried out after obtaining written authority from the Area Military Emergency Authority.
  3. All risks and consequences of these media activities by foreign and national journalists in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam Province will be at their own responsibility.70

On June 24, 2003 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a Media Advisory on visits to Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam detailing the new procedures for foreign correspondents to obtain travel permits to travel to Aceh province. The advisory states:

  1. Foreign Correspondents based in Indonesia should apply for a travel permit to the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the attention of Director of Information and Media Services, mentioning the time schedule for the visit and the names of the journalists (foreign and Indonesian nationals) … The permit will take at the minimum three working days to process …
  2. The Department of Foreign Affairs, the Directorate of Information and Media Services will issue a letter addressed to the Regional Martial Law Administrator (PDMD NAD), Commander of the Information Task Force in Banda Aceh. The Regional Martial Law Administrator has the authority to issue a card for coverage in the Province of NAD.”71

It should be noted that the regional martial law administrator also has the power to refuse to issue a press card.

On June 26, the Military Emergency Administrator in Aceh announced two new decrees. The first regulated visits and activities of foreign nationals, international humanitarian aid workers, foreign journalists, and correspondents for foreign media. The second declaration regulated visits and activities of national NGOs and journalists in Aceh province. According to the first declaration, foreigners: a) are not allowed to undertake tourist visits, b) must report upon arrival to Aceh martial law administrator and present a letter of authorization from the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, passport, and other documents proving identity, and c) are only authorized to undertake visits and activities in district capitals and cities in Aceh province. Banda Aceh was also designated as the single authorized entry point into the province. Anyone found violating the regulations would be ordered to leave within twenty-four hours.72

The most widely publicized case of curbing reportage occurred on June 24, 2003, when American William Nessen was arrested, charged, and convicted for immigration violations, despite his claim that he held an accredited journalist visa and was entitled to report on the conflict.

Nessen argued that he had entered Aceh before martial law started, and more critically, before the new legislative restrictions on foreign correspondents had come into force. Nessen’s practice of researching stories from behind GAM lines did not sit well with the Indonesian military. Amidst much public debate in Indonesia over whether Nessen was actually an American spy or a legitimate journalist, he eventually left the GAM forces he had been traveling with and turned himself over to Indonesian authorities, facilitated with intervention from the U.S. embassy in Jakarta.

Indonesian authorities subsequently arrested Nessen in Banda Aceh, and eventually charged him with violating immigration regulations under Law No. 9/1992. On August 2, 2003, a court convicted Nessen and sentenced him to forty days imprisonment, to include time served. Due to his long period of pre-trial detention he was released the next day. The court banned Nessen from entering Indonesia for one year as a condition of his release.73 The Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club (JFCC) has maintained that although Nessen was not a member of the JFCC, he was traveling on a journalist’s visa, and was within his legal rights to go to Aceh and report on the conflict.74

In another case, on June 26, the military arrested Tadatomo Takagi, a Japanese freelance photographer, for failing to have proper documentation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Takagi was in Aceh province taking photos of displaced villagers in Bireuen, North Aceh. The military initially detained him in Aceh before the police questioned him. On June 28, 2003, Indonesian authorities eventually expelled Takagi through North Sumatra, his believed port of entry.75

Two days later, on June 30, 2003, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights issued a Ministerial Decree outlining the procedure for access to Aceh by foreigners, including correspondents. This introduced the “blue book,” essentially an internal visa system for Aceh, applicable to international aid workers and foreign correspondents.76 Specific to correspondents, the decree stated that journalists or foreign correspondents needed to obtain a recommendation from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as the blue book, for access to Aceh.77

These new regulations caused profound confusion. Trying to comply with the legislation, foreign correspondents faced extensive bureaucratic delays in their attempts to obtain the proper documentation. The regular absence of the Minister of Foreign Affairs from Indonesia was just one of the obstacles to obtaining the necessary paperwork. What was clear was the effect of the legislation and new procedures in severely restricting access to the province.

In response to the Presidential and Ministerial Decrees, the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents’ Club (JFCC) wrote an open letter to the Coordinating Minister for Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Minister for Foreign Affairs Hassan Wirajuda outlining their concerns about the new legislation. In the letter the JFCC expressed deep concern that “a series of delays and constantly changing government and military rulings is in fact preventing foreign media access to Aceh.”78

A foreign correspondent for a wire agency in Jakarta was more candid about the new legislation. He told Human Rights Watch:

This new development is pointing to a fairly broad clampdown. The international community should start getting on this issue…The TNI is saying that it is for the safety of journalists but most of us are interpreting it otherwise…I think it is very clear that the military is keen to curb the activities of the foreign media.79

Although resident foreign correspondents wishing to travel to Aceh actively cooperated with the government and submitted the necessary paperwork, the government did not approve any applications within the promised three-day period. In fact most correspondents who worked through the proper channels were barred from the province for months. In mid-July, Shawn Donnan, reporting for the Financial Times was the first foreign correspondent to return to Aceh after the new regulations were implemented. However, he was only given an access pass for five days and had to remain in Banda Aceh for four days while the martial law administration processed his access request. Donnan was unable to leave Banda Aceh during his trip.80

In June 2003 at least twelve foreign correspondents applied for special permits to Aceh, after the new regulations were issued. After extensive and lengthy delays all the permits were eventually issued by mid-August. By this time the war in Aceh had dropped out of international headlines. As a result only a few correspondents chose to use the visa and make the trip to Aceh. In addition to waiting weeks for approvals from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Department, those correspondents who visited Banda Aceh then had to wait at least three days in the capital while the local police and military “processed” their permits. During that time, reporters were not allowed to travel or do any reporting.

The new decrees regulating journalists’ access to Aceh have widespread implications. Not only do they restrict access to, and within, the province, but they also regulate media activities upon arrival. Even correspondents who have permits are only able to travel on main highways and are required to report their movements to local police and military commanders in every place they visit. Travel is restricted to just the main cities and major towns.

The restriction on reporters entering villages effectively means that correspondents now cannot report on the war firsthand, and have to rely on military statements that in the past have contradicted accounts by local residents.

Reporting for ABC radio, Tim Palmer described the process that finally got him to Aceh. Reporting from an office in the main military compound of Banda Aceh, he said:

We spent two-and-a-half days in various offices like this trying to get the permits that will allow us to work in Aceh. It’s a privilege only afforded to journalists resident in Indonesia now and it’s already taken weeks to get the permits in Jakarta to just fly here. Even when we get the approvals, they’re a disappointment. We’re made to sign a letter promising not to report details of military operations, not to speak to or quote the enemy GAM forces, not to travel anywhere outside the major towns on the main highway. Not much is left for a reporter trying to map the progress of this war now 100 days old, but we set out anyway.81

Writing in The Guardian (UK) on August 20, 2003, foreign correspondent John Aglionby summarized the restrictions and reported from Aceh, “Foreign reporters are allowed to report only from the main towns, are not allowed to quote GAM ‘propaganda,’ and have to inform the authorities of everything they do. They are not allowed to accompany Indonesian soldiers on operations.”82

Unfortunately, not many international media outlets are now regularly reporting on the war in Aceh. Although the Indonesian government continues to insist that it has not banned foreigners from Aceh, the strict limitations on travel within the province, and the lengthy and bureaucratic procedures needed for obtaining a permit to the province are proving to be effective barriers for the foreign press corps. As one bureau chief in Jakarta told Human Rights Watch:

Sadly, not that many international media are covering the Aceh story. In addition to waning interest, the military and government have made the process of getting a permit so difficult and long that many editors are opting not to cover the story at all.83

C. Restrictions on Indonesian Journalists Working for International Outlets

Before the military emergency there were no restrictions at all but after the Presidential Decree was issued there were lots of restrictions. I cannot move freely any more. I have to report to military authorities every place I go.84

—Indonesian journalist

The Presidential Decree of June 16, 2003, specifically refers to domestic journalists, but the martial law administration in Aceh has made it clear that, in addition, it interprets additional access restrictions for foreigners to be applicable to those Indonesian staff working for foreign newspapers and agencies. Indonesian media outlets have also been warned against selling their materials to foreign wire services or media outlets.

Contrary to previous practice for Indonesian nationals, the martial law administration in Aceh now bans local journalists from working for foreign media agencies in Aceh, without also obtaining Foreign Ministry permits. The administration has also warned local reporters against sharing video footage with foreign media. If they violate the restrictions, the military can expel them from Aceh.85

One Indonesian photographer for a foreign news agency told Human Rights Watch:

I talked with friends from local media…they cannot sell news to foreign media anymore. Sometimes we ask for help from friends to email photos etc., normally they are very co-operative, but now they just say “no, I am not brave enough, I just can’t, I’m sorry.” I don’t know if this is pressure from the military or not.86

D. International Legal Considerations

The ongoing fighting in Aceh qualifies as a non-international (internal) armed conflict under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, to which Indonesia is a party. Common article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions prohibits summary executions, torture, mistreatment and other humiliating or degrading treatment of those in custody, the taking of hostages, and the passing of sentences without a fair trial.

While international humanitarian law provides little direct guidance on the protection of journalists in internal armed conflicts, the right to freedom of expression remains protected under international human rights law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights87 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),88 many provisions of which are recognized as customary international law, apply during wartime as well as in peacetime. Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration and the ICCPR recognize the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas” through any media, regardless of frontiers.89

The right to freedom of expression may be restricted during a state of emergency or to protect national security, but only as provided by law and as is necessary.90 This principle is elucidated in the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, which were drafted by international law and global rights experts in 1995 and endorsed by the U.N. special rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on the independence of judges and lawyers.91

Any government-imposed restrictions on journalists (as well as NGO workers) should be consistent with Principle 19 of the Johannesburg Principles on access to restricted areas, which provides:

Any restriction on the free flow of information may not be of such a nature as to thwart the purposes of human rights and humanitarian law. In particular, governments may not prevent journalists or representatives of intergovernmental or non-governmental organizations, which monitor adherence to human rights or humanitarian standards, from entering areas where there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations of human rights or humanitarian law are being, or have been, committed. Governments may not exclude journalists or representatives of such organizations from areas that are experiencing violence or armed conflict except where their presence would pose a clear risk to the safety of others.92

66 JFCC Letter to Co-ordinating Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Minister Hassan Wirajuda, Jakarta, June 27, 2003.

67 Matthew Moore, “German Tourist in Aceh Killed by Military,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 6, 2003, “Tourist Couple Shot in Aceh,” The Guardian, June 5, 2003.

68 Openg Onn, “NST Journalists In Acheh Fly Home After Police Questioning,” Bernama, June 8, 2003.

69 Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam Province is the official name for the province of Aceh.

70 Decree No. 43 of 2003 of the President of the Republic of Indonesia as Central Military Authority, “The Arrangement of Activities of Foreigners, Non-Government Organizations and the Press in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam Province,” June 16, 2003, sec. 3.

71 Media Advisory on visit to Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, Directorate of Information and Media Services, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jakarta, June 24, 2003.

72 OCHA: Indonesia Consolidated Situation Report No. 135, June 28 - July 4, 2003; Nani Farida, “Aceh Off-Limits to Foreigners,” The Jakarta Post, June 27, 2003.

73 “Freed US journalist to be barred from entering Indonesia for a year,” Agence France-Presse, August 4, 2003; “Indonesia releases American journalist,” Associated Press, August 3, 2003; Nani Farida, “American journalist declared a suspect,” The Jakarta Post, June 26, 2003.

74 JFCC Letter to Co-ordinating Minister for Security Affairs, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hassan Wirajuda, Jakarta, June 27, 2003.

75 “Indonesian Military Detains Japanese Photographer In Aceh,” Associated Press, June 27, 2003; Anton Aliabbas, “Fotografer Jepang Diberangkatkan ke Medan,”, June 28, 2003.

76 Bakornas PBP (Indonesia’s National Co-coordinating Body for the Management of Disaster and IDPs/Refugees) is now responsible for the consideration of requests for Blue Book passes for foreigners wishing to enter Aceh. Agencies and international actors that require blue books need to send a letter to the Co-ordinating Ministry of Social Welfare and to Bakornas. These requests will be evaluated and, if recommended by Bakornas, the Office of the Coordinating Minister will send a letter to the Ministry of Justice on the basis of which a Blue Book pass will be issued. The pass allows a single entry for a maximum of fourteen days with one extension at the province for a further fourteen days. After twenty-eight days the pass will expire and the bearer will have to leave Aceh in order to apply for the renewal of the pass, and re-start the whole procedure again.

77 Decree No. M.02.IZ.01.10 of 2003 of the Minister of Justice and Human Rights of the Republic of Indonesia, “Granting Permits for Foreigners to Visit and Conduct Activities in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam Province,” June 30, 2003, sec. 5d.

78 JFCC Letter to Co-ordinating Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Minister Hassan Wirajuda, Jakarta, June 27, 2003 (emphasis added).

79 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], foreign wire correspondent, Jakarta, June 27, 2003.

80 Shawn Donnan, “Indonesians text messages of support for Aceh clampdown,” The Financial Times, July 21, 2003; Human Rights Watch email communication [name withheld], Jakarta foreign correspondent, August 8, 2003.

81 “Indonesian Army clamps down on information in Aceh,” ABC Radio National, August 31, 2003.

82 John Aglionby, “Battered people of Aceh take time out to party as Jakarta's crackdown drags on,” The Guardian, August 20, 2003.

83 Human Rights Watch email communication [name withheld], foreign bureau chief, September 18, 2003.

84 Human Rights Watch telephone interview [name withheld], Indonesian news website journalist, Aceh, July 7, 2003.

85 Committee to Protect Journalists, “Letter to Megawati Expressing Concern About Restrictions on Media in Aceh,” June 27, 2003.

86 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Indonesian photographer, Jakarta, June 27, 2003.

87 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 71 (1948).

88 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force Mar. 23, 1976. Indonesia is not a party to the ICCPR.

89 See also ICCPR, art. 4 (derogations of the ICCPR are permissible to the extent they are “determined by law only so far as this may be compatible with the nature of these rights and solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society”).

90 ICCPR, art. 19(3).

91 The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1996/39.

92 The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1996/39.

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November 2003