By A. Lin Neumann
The Asian Times Online
JAKARTA - Using tactics inspired by the US military during the war in Iraq, the Indonesian military is keeping the domestic press under control and virtually barring foreign correspondents from covering the ongoing military offensive against separatist rebels in the northern province of Aceh.
The current military operation, which began on May 19 when a six-month ceasefire collapsed and martial law was declared, is the largest staged by Indonesia since it seized East Timor in 1975. With 50,000 troops on the ground to combat some 5,000 guerrillas, the offensive began in "shock and awe" fashion, with scripted parachute drops and fighter planes screaming across the skies for the television cameras.
The government confidently proclaimed that the rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (known by the Indonesian acronym GAM, for Gerakin Aceh Merdeka) would be defeated in six months, marking an end to an insurgency that began in the mid-1970s. But the war is dragging on and less information than ever is coming out of Aceh.
Journalists and diplomats complain that a policy of embedding local journalists with military units, combined with bans on reporting the rebel side of the conflict and official appeals to patriotism, have stifled coverage of the conflict. The Indonesian military has introduced progressively tougher restrictions and has issued pointed suggestions aimed at ensuring compliant media. Local reporters are given a military training course before being embedded with combat units, just as reporters with US troops were before the Iraq war. The domestic media have also been told that it is their duty as Indonesians to support the military effort.
"The pressure is very strong to be pro-military," says Andreas Harsono, a veteran Indonesian journalist. "It's like a huge wave of nationalism and the media [are] swept up in it."
In another echo of the Iraq war, leaders openly appeal to reporters' patriotism. "In solving the Aceh case, public support plays a major role. If Indonesian media report news coming from GAM, we should question the depth of their nationalism," military chief General Endriartono Sutarto told reporters early in the conflict.
State Communications and Information Minister Syamsul Mu'arif told journalists recently that printing information from GAM rebels is unpatriotic. "We ask the media to be wise. Frankly, publishing statements from GAM will only hamper the [military] operation and alienate the TNI from the people."
Foreign reporters, meanwhile, in recent weeks, have scarcely been allowed into the province at all.
"These regulations were sent to us by the US Pacific Command. It is what they used in Iraq," Major-General Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, chief of information for the Indonesian Armed Forces (known by the Indonesian abbreviation TNI, for Tentera Nasional Indonesia), told foreign reporters at a press briefing on June 20 to unveil formally the tight regulations on foreign journalists trying to cover Aceh. "Of course, we have adapted them to our local environment."
Sjafrie said that foreign reporters are barred from being embedded with military units, and that the press must inform the military of all their movements in the province. In addition, reporters are prohibited from publishing "enemy propaganda". Asked for clarification, he defined enemy propaganda as "trying to improve the GAM's image in front of the public. That is not okay" in news reports, he said.
Before going to Aceh, foreign journalists must secure permission in writing from both the Foreign Affairs Department and the Justice Department. Only after journalists have these two documents can they fly to Aceh. Then, upon arrival, they must register with both the police and the military to receive further clearances. The process can take weeks and still lead nowhere, according to reporters who have been trying to get into Aceh unsuccessfully since the restrictions were announced.
Local military commanders have toughened the various regulations. Major-General Endang Suwarya, Aceh's martial-law administrator, issued a decree that all foreigners must enter and leave the province through Aceh's capital, Banda Aceh, making it illegal for foreigners to enter the province by road. Foreign visitors are also banned from traveling outside the provincial capital and other major cities.
The Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club (JFCC) wrote a letter of complaint on June 26 to Indonesian officials about the mounting number of restrictions, stating that "a series of delays and constantly changing government and military rulings [are] in fact preventing foreign media access to Aceh". The association noted that, despite numerous meetings with officials to try to work out a way to cover the story, regulations were making it extremely difficult. "We find it hard not to conclude that there is a concerted effort to permanently impose severe restrictions on foreign media from reporting on the integrated operation in Aceh," the letter stated.
Even diplomats must secure special permission to visit Aceh, so many embassies claim to have little direct information about what is happening with the war. "They aren't letting us up there and they don't tell us much," said one senior diplomat in Jakarta.
One reason things have gotten so tough may be military anger at US freelance journalist William Nessen, who traveled for several weeks with GAM guerrillas, infuriating commanders. The military ordered Nessen to surrender, claiming that he was a GAM sympathizer. Nessen, who was accredited to write from Indonesia for the San Francisco Chronicle, claimed to be writing a book about the Aceh conflict and gathering material for a documentary. Fearing for his life, however, Nessen turned himself over to Sjafrie and a US Embassy representative on June 24. He was arrested and is now detained in Aceh on alleged immigration violations.
But there is more to the restrictions than simple anger over a freelancer. At stake, some believe, is Indonesia's world image. The TNI already has a reputation for brutality. The more that public scrutiny can be kept away from the battlefield - and away from potential human-rights abuses - the less chance there is for widespread international condemnation of the current offensive.
The latest restrictions contrast with the very early days of the current conflict, when it was fairly easy for the foreign press to enter Aceh and move with relative freedom around the province, despite the inherent danger of working in a war zone. A number of critical stories were written about civilian casualties and apparent human-rights abuses, and access was shut off. "In practice, since these regulations came out, no one is getting into Aceh," says a Jakarta-based foreign correspondent. "So now covering the story is a hit-or-miss thing. You can't rely on what the TNI says, and you can't trust what GAM says either, and you can't see for yourself."
For Indonesian journalists, the dilemma is somewhat different but no less worrisome. Those covering the conflict as "embeds" get nearly all of their information from military sources. In exchange, they are given a seven-day military training course, and are allowed on limited military operations. Indonesian military officials say the policy has made the current Aceh war more transparent than any previous military operation.
The policy may be working. Many observers say the war in Aceh is popular with the Indonesian public, who fear the breakup of their country and may still be stung by the loss of East Timor in 1999. "It is important to safeguard the territorial integrity of the state. [Indonesians] really believe that," says Riza Primadi, the news director of TransTV. "So appeals to patriotism have an impact even on the media. A lot of [journalists] saw the occupation of East Timor as illegal, but Aceh has always been part of Indonesia. The Acehnese were leaders in our struggle against the Dutch. We do not want our country to disintegrate."
Journalists in Aceh are also caught between the two sides and are at great risk of attack or worse. In several instances early in the campaign, unidentified gunmen shot at journalists as they drove through the province. One journalist has been killed, others beaten and a TV crew from a local network taken hostage by GAM rebels.
The situation in Aceh looks set to be a protracted and messy guerrilla struggle. Recently the military announced that the campaign against the rebels will likely continue much longer than the originally projected six months, leaving open the prospect that Indonesia's fragile democracy may have a semi-permanent military regime acting within its borders for months, even years, to come.
With journalists subject to military pressure, and foreigners unable to travel in Aceh, learning anything of substance about the conflict is almost impossible.
"My religion is journalism, that is also my nationality," says Harsono. "I can be a good anak bangsa [son of the nation] if I can report both sides of the conflict. But right now they are not allowing that to happen."
A Lin Neumann is the Asia consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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