Thursday, October 29, 1998

Minister who killed journalists?

A minister helping the Indonesian press is alleged to be the man behind the killings of journalists in East Timor. Andreas Harsono writes.

INDONESIAN Information Minister Muhammad Yunus got the first protest just a few days after taking office in May. More than two dozen Indonesian journalists staged a protest inside the compound of his office in Jakarta, asking Yunus to release Indonesian journalists in prison and to free Indonesian media from government censorship.

Surprisingly Yunus decided to let the protesters come into his office and held a one-hour impromptu meeting. Some senior journalists like Goenawan Mohamad of the Tempo weekly magazine and Atmakusumah Astraatmadja of the Dr Soetomo Press Institute joined the protesters and aired their demands that the newly-installed President BJ Habibie administration free the media.

''Insya Allah, I will fulfil your demands but I cannot promise,'' said Yunus who repeatedly used the ''God willing'' phrase when talking about his future policy. The minister needed only two weeks to prove that he meant it.

In early June Yunus announced a number of ministerial decrees which basically deregulated the print media publication procedure, freed journalists to set up their respective unions, reduced the compulsory relay of the state-owned RRI news reports over private radios and allowed the relaunch of the Tempo and DeTIK weeklies banned in 1994.

In a related development, the Habibie government also pardoned and released several Indonesian journalists who were jailed for ''defaming the government'' and ''for sowing hatred against the government'' of former President Suharto.

Many political observers here believed that Yunus had made a major decision. Some noted journalists even said that his decision is actually the most important, if not the only, contribution of the Habibie administration in democratising Indonesia.

Others said Yunus, who is still an active army lieutenant general, had brought more changes than any other information minister in the modern history of Indonesia. He has issued more publishing licences than any other ministers since Indonesia gained its independence in 1945.

But the question remains the same. Is this the man who ordered his troops to kill five Australian journalists in the border town of Balibo in East Timor when Indonesian forces were invading the former Portuguese colony in October 1975?

Many Australian media reported that Yunus is actually the army officer of the Kopassandha special command who had led the attack in Balibo and blasted everything in sight with AK-47 assault rifles and RPG-2 rockets.

An East Timorese told Australia's ABC feature programme that he was part of the force which attacked Balibo and saw Indonesian soldiers under the command of a ''Major Andreas'' -- supposedly the nickname of Yunus -- fire into the house where the journalists were sheltering.

Olandino Maia Guterres claimed to have seen much more, including the stripping of the bodies and dressing of them in Portuguese uniforms so that they could be photographed. In short, Guterres said Yunus had ordered the killing of the journalists.

Yunus himself has repeatedly denied his involvement. In a number of conversations with foreign visitors, which include representatives of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Toronto-based International Freedom of Expression Clearing House, he simply said he does not know the Australian journalists.

''I am not involved in that case, I deny the allegation. I never got any information about the journalists, I never met the journalists,'' Yunus once said.

The journalists who died at Balibo on October 16, 1975, were Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart, of Seven News in Melbourne, and Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters, both of National Nine News in Sydney.

Yunus himself has maintained there was ''no need'' to reopen the investigation, and has denied the new allegations could damage his career as part of the reformist Habibie government.

When meeting senior journalists, the general prefers to talk about his love of sports. Yunus is widely known among army circles as a sports maniac who himself trained his two adopted East Timorese sons to become national players and sent his son to practice golfing in the United States.

But unlike their Australian counterparts, Indonesian media have shied away from reporting the call to reinvestigate the killings, as if trying to say that the case is over and they do not want to expose any controversy surrounding a person who has almost helped them to open up the media. ''It's not the appropriate time,'' quipped a veteran journalist.

The Jakarta Post, the leading English-language newspaper here, quoted a wire report on a statement made by the Committee to Protect Journalists, questioning whether the minister is actually the man who had ordered the killing of the journalists.

Other mainstream news organisations remained silent. Perhaps, a reinvestigation will bring brighter light both in Australia and Indonesia if Indonesian journalists themselves put aside their self interest in promoting and institutionalising press freedom and begin to join their Australian colleagues to be skeptical on the issue. Perhaps Yunus is ''Major Andreas''. Perhaps he is not. Surely an investigation is needed to establish the truth.

-- Andreas Harsono is The Nation's Jakarta correspondent.

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