IFJ Issues Safety Alert After “Outrageous” Assaults on Media Rights in Aceh War

The International Federation of Journalists today called for international action to secure the release of journalists being held hostage in Aceh, Indonesia, and issued a general safety alert over an “outrageous catalogue of violations of journalists’ rights” in the region where Indonesia is waging a military campaign against armed separatists.

Two Indonesian journalists, television reporter Ersa Siregar and cameraman Fery Santoro, are being held hostage by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), one Indonesian journalist has been found dead, two foreign journalists have been arrested and severe media restrictions have been put in place by the Indonesian military. The two missing journalists, working for RCTI, disappeared on 29 June while on assignment in Langsa, Aceh. They had been covering the military operation in Aceh since May 19.

“It is indefensible that media staff are being used as pawns and scapegoats in this conflict,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary, “The victimisation of reporters by all sides must cease.”

The IFJ has called for the journalists held by GAM to be released and for the Indonesian military to free arrested reporters and to ease reporting restrictions. “Peace and reconciliation is never achieved by intimidating journalists and stifling free speech,” said White.

On 17 June the body of cameraman Mohamad Jamaluddin, of the state-run TV station TVR1, was found at the village of Kreung Cut, near Banda Aceh (capital of Aceh province, in north Sumatra). A police spokesman said his body was found in a river, his eyes and mouth were covered with adhesive tape, his hands tied and a rope with a stone attached was round his neck.

On 25 June, Indonesian police formally detained American freelance William Nessen and later charged him with violating two sections of Indonesia's immigration law. Nessen, who voluntarily turned himself over to military authorities on 24 June, after spending several weeks with GAM, can be held for at least 20 days in police custody. The detention can be extended for an additional 40 days. He is not eligible for bail.

Nessen, who is accredited to work in Indonesia as a representative of The San Francisco Chronicle, should be released immediately and the charges dropped, says the IFJ. “Aceh was not even considered a conflict area until martial law was instituted and the military offensive against GAM rebels began on May 19,” said White, “Nessen was already on the spot at that time and he could not meet the sudden requirement to register with the army authorities or obtain special passes to visit a province he was already working from.” The IFJ says that the charges are unfair and should be dropped.

“This journalist should not be penalised when he has acted professionally and responsibly throughout,” said White. “Any action against him will be unjust and will reflect a vindictive approach to all journalists.”

Since June 26, orders restricting the movements of foreign journalists and local Indonesian reporters working for foreign media have been in force. They have to stay in cities or larger towns unless accompanied by a military escort. Foreign correspondents in Aceh are now required to report their movements.

“These restrictions on the media are blatant violations of international press freedom norms,” says the IFJ. “They are designed to block journalists' access to military operations in Aceh, thus creating a news blackout that can only contribute to fear, ignorance, and anxiety among people affected by the conflict.”

Since the beginning of the conflict on 19 May, there have been serious restrictions placed on journalists covering the war. These include the prohibition by the Indonesian military on reporting statements from the separatist Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

In a separate incident, the IFJ is deeply concerned by the recent arrest of a Japanese photographer, Takagi Tadatomo, who was detained on 25 June in Aceh. He was reportedly arrested for not carrying any accreditation and has since been released.

Today saw the attack against Alif Imam Nurlambang a journalist of Radio News Agency 68H, in Panton Luas, South Aceh. He was reporting on the situation of refugees in the area, accompanied by his guide Jaka Rasyid and driver Nazarudin, when he was attacked by security forces while in a local resident’s house interviewing the owner in an area where many residents have fled their homes.

“This attack is the latest in an outrageous catalogue of violations of journalists’ rights,” said White. “Under the Geneva Conventions, journalists and other media workers should be treated as civilians and should not be military targets.”

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The IFJ represents more than 500, 000 journalists in more than 100 countries