Sunday, June 22, 2003

Risky in Aceh for newsmen

As concerns about the safety of journalists covering the war in Acheh mount, there are even fears that the "new Order" of the past regime may once again prevail. ANDREAS HARSONO reports. 

ONE was killed, another was threatened to be shot inside the jungle, some lost their job, and many were caught in the line of fire between the Indonesian military and Aceh guerrillas.  

Journalists are facing more and more danger while covering the war in Aceh in the northern tip of Sumatra where a major Indonesian military offensive is underway to crush a long-running separatist insurgency.  

Indonesian media reported this week that villagers had found the body of Mohamad Jamal, a cameraman for Indonesian channel TVRI, on Tuesday (June 17) in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital of Aceh.  

The Banda Aceh-based Serambi Indonesia daily reported that Jamal’s body was found in a river. Clad only in his underwear, his eyes and mouth had been covered with duct tape, his hands bound with a nylon cord, and a noose lashed to a boulder was tied around his neck.  

Meanwhile, the army has threatened to shoot an American journalist stringing for the San Fransisco Chronicle, whom they believe to be a secret agent, if he does not surrender from his hiding place in the jungle with Aceh guerrillas.  

IN THE LINE OF FIRE: An Indonesian soldier gives instructions to a female journalist during an emergency training for journalists who face more danger as the war in Aceh escalates.

“If William Nessen is really an intelligence agent then the punishment is serious, but if he is truly a journalist then there is no problem,” said Army Chief Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu.  

William Nessen has been with the Aceh guerrillas since last month. He defied a military order to turn himself to the army by June 14, saying he first needed assurances that he would not be jailed.  

Two journalists also lost their jobs from SCTV and Metro TV in Jakarta after they had respectively ran sensitive reports about the Indonesian military torturing civilians.  

“We’re concerned that this pressure is not going to end at the end of the war. It might revive the New Order tradition on putting pressure on Indonesian media,” said Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, chairman of Indonesia's Press Council last Saturday.  

“New Order” is the self-proclaimed name of President Suharto’s authoritarian regime, which ruled Indonesia between 1965 and 1998. It is notorious for its practice of putting systematic pressures on Indonesian media.  

Indonesian journalists only began to enjoy their press freedom after the fall of Suharto. New successive administrations accommodated press freedom, the print licensing policy was abolished and “information offices” were dismissed.  

When Hendrata Yudha lost his job from Metro TV and Dhandy Dwi Laksono from SCTV, both of them reported their dismissal to a journalist union, saying their dismissals were politically motivated. The respective managements said Dhandy lost his job because the contract was finished, while Hendrata lost his because of his frequent inaccuracy.  

Astraatmadja worried that the ongoing pressure will create a culture of fear among some Indonesian media that have no tradition of maintaining their independence. “They surrendered rather than fight back,” said Astraatmadja, who also pointed out that the SCTV and Metro TV stations had fired their reporters after complaints made by the military.  

Journalist mailing lists in Indonesia also circulated many stories about how journalists were caught between fire. More than a dozen journalists have also reported their cars being shot at while travelling in the villages of Aceh.  

Meanwhile, journalists in Aceh said that unidentified gunmen had kidnapped Jamal on May 20, the day after martial law was imposed in Aceh. The motive behind his kidnapping and murder still remain unclear. His brother Fuadi Ishak was also kidnapped and killed.  

In comments to the Associated Press this week, Nessen, a 46-year-old New York City native, said he was in Aceh to report on the latest military offensive against the Acehnese rebels. More than 300 people have died in the fighting since the operation began on May 19.  

Nessen said he was there to gather information for a book and documentary on Aceh. He said he hasn’t published stories or photographs on the conflict for some time because he had lost his laptop and other possessions.  

Andreas Harsono is The Star’s correspondent in Jakarta 

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Acehnese live in grim shadows of civil war

by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
Jakarta, Indonesia

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, June 19, 2003 -- It was probably a regular exchange but the clatter of American M-16s mixed with the return fire of Russian-made AK-101 automatic rifles was enough to create a terrible fear in a small village here.

"I was sleeping when the noise suddenly bang! Bang! Bang!" said grandmother Aisyah, who lives in a wooden hut with her two daughters, a son-in-law and six grandchildren in the village of Payung, about six kilometers from Banda Aceh, the capital of the Indonesian troubled Aceh province.

"I was so scared I fell down on the floor," Aisyah said, explaining how she struggled to drag her thin 85-year-old frail body into the hut.

It was probably a new phenomenon for Aisyah, who lives in a relatively safe suburban area of Banda Aceh, but the gunfire is a daily routine for most villagers in Aceh. Rights groups estimate that more than 10,000 people have been killed since Indonesian soldiers began fighting Free Aceh Movement (GAM) forces that declared independence from Indonesia in December 1976.

Aceh is located in the northern tip of Sumatra Island on the Straits of Malacca, one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, used mostly by ships that harbor in Singapore. Ironically, the security of shipping there was often cited by American analysts 40 years ago as a principal justification for U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Aceh is closer to both Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and Singapore than to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, which is on the Indonesian main island of Java about three hours flying from Banda Aceh.

The man behind this movement is Hasan di Tiro, an Acehnese aristocrat-cum-businessman who got his Ph.D from Columbia University in New York and is the grandson of the famous Tengku Cik di Tiro - an Acehnese who fought against Indonesia's Dutch colonial rulers in the early 20th Century.

Hasan argued that while Aceh produced revenue of more than $10 billion annually, it was mainly channeled to the corrupt and authoritarian regime of President Suharto in Jakarta. In 1976, Di Tiro tried to start a business in Aceh but was rebuffed. Instead, he returned to the United States to bring back arms, money and a bloody rebellion to Aceh.

He made himself the walinegara, or head of state, made plans to revive the ancient Acehnese sultanate, and went into the jungle to wage guerilla war. Indonesia, according to Di Tiro, was a fraud or a cloak to cover up the colonialism of Indonesia's main ethnic group, the Javanese who live mainly on the island of Java. In the 1980s, he fled to Sweden and remains in surburban Stockholm.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri inaugurated a new wave of repression when declaring martial law in Aceh on May 19. She based her decision on failed negotiations between the guerilla leaders and Indonesian diplomats.

The Indonesian military said last week it had killed 202 guerillas while 24 soldiers and policemen had lost their lives since martial law. Five civilians had also been killed, it said. Rebel sources said some of the Acehnese dead were civilians, including teenagers and women. One German tourist was also killed while he and his wife were camping on an Aceh beach and shot by a group of nine soldiers who mistook them for guerillas.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as many as 7,860 families or 31,194 persons have become refugees as of last week. Indonesian soldiers regularly asked villagers to leave their houses in a bid to separate "the fishes from the water" - an old maxim about guerillas living among villagers.

The agency also reported that 56 teachers have been killed, while more than 100 others were injured and at least 507 schools have been burned throughout Aceh. Both the Indonesian military and the Aceh guerillas blame the other side for the fires.

Abdi Wahab, the president of the Banda Aceh-based Syiah Kuala University, is worried not only because students from elementary schools to colleges lost their facilities, but also because the quality of education in Aceh has deteriorated steeply.

"Our dropout rate has increased two to three percent in recent semesters. The parents cannot afford to pay our tuition fees," said Wahad, adding that a college student in this largest and most prestigious university in Aceh with nearly 19,000 students pays only 300,000 rupiah each student each semester - about US$40.

For both urban and rural areas, another huge problem is electricity. Every day sees another blackout in Banda Aceh. The price of a can of cold Coca Cola has increased six times due to the lack of working refrigerators. GAM fighters regularly taer down electric utility towers.

Aisyah's maiden fight took place in a swampy area near fish farms, and a coconut plantation in Payung. It began around 6pm on Friday, June 6, when more than two dozen Indonesian police led by First Inspector Denny Jatmiko ambushed four Acehnese guerillas.

The guerillas, however, fired back and quickly ran in the direction of a newspaper office regularly guarded by other officers from Jatmiko's division and just a stone's throw away from Aisyah's hut.

"I saw four of them. One used a jungle camouflage, another one in black and two using regular clothes. They used different arms. But judging from the clatter, there must be an M-16 and at least two short guns, probably FN pistols," said a police officer, who was stationed behind the newspaper office.

The Indonesian officers use standard AK-101 rifles which have foldable handles. The firefight went on for almost one hour before the guerrillas, who were under attacked from three different directions, managed to escape. Journalists working in the two-story office ran downstairs to the ground floor for safety.

Fatimah, Aisyah's eldest daughter, said "I was cooking soybean. We laid down because we're scared of stray bullets."

This war is one without battle zones. Indonesian soldiers frequently complain about difficulties in differentiating common people from the guerillas.

Everything seemed to have returned to normal when I visited the village the following morning. The grim face of the war, so frequently seen when a villager is killed, was not in evidence. As villagers went about their their busuiness, women washed their laundry at a communal water pump. Men went to tend their fish farms. Goats and chicken wandered around in the lush green grass of the neighborhood.

The idleness could not hide the economic difficulties the villagers face. "It's difficult to work under the current situation," said Muhammad Amin, a well-muscled and bearded man, the husband of Fatimah's younger sister. "We used to sell fried bananas in downtown area. We used to keep our business open until late at night. But now, we're already home by 7pm," he said.

His complaint is normal. It is common now to see young men idle in coffee shops around the clock. People wait weeks to get their computers fixed as components travel via the land transporation that has been almost halted since martial law.

To make ends meet, Fatimah cooks and sells the traditional Acehnese snack called "kacang kuning" - baked soybean coated with sugar - for a living. With Amin, who also has a "becak mesin" - motorcycle with a side car - commonly used in northern Sumatra, they earn around 20,000 rupiah - about US$3 a day.

Andreas Harsono has written about Indonesia for The American Reporter and other publications since 1996, and was named a Nieman International Fellow in 1999. He is based in Jakarta.