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Indonesia Places Restrictions on Journalists in War-Torn Aceh Province - 2003-06-11

The Indonesian government imposed martial law in the northern province of Aceh on May 17 after a five-month cease-fire with separatist rebels collapsed. Even as it launched a massive offensive against the rebels, the Indonesian military placed restrictions on journalists working in the troubled province. In the first days of the offensive, the head of the military operation in Aceh issued a decree: Major General Endang Suwarya told Indonesian journalists they were no longer allowed to quote rebels of the Free Aceh Movement in their reports.

The decree angered media organizations, which said it puts journalists covering the conflict at risk. Lukas Luwarsono, Indonesian country director for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, said the rebel movement, known in Indonesia as GAM, now views reporters with suspicion. "This is very dangerous for Indonesian journalists because the journalists now become the target for GAM for example. Most of the journalists not known by GAM will be seen as the enemy, because they are pro-Indonesia," Mr. Luwarsono said.

Mr. Luwarsono said reporters are being endangered further by instances in which Indonesian soldiers allegedly pose as journalists to carry out operations against the rebels.

"Military men use disguises as a journalist. Two days after that a Metro TV journalist and a TV 7 journalist were shot [at] by GAM," he said.

The shots missed the TV crewmen, and it is not known who the gunmen were. But the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reports at least four other incidents of foreign and local journalists coming under fire in Aceh.

The military action is the latest chapter in the 27-year-old Aceh civil war, which began when GAM declared the province independent of Indonesia. Human rights groups charge that the military has fueled support for the rebels over the years by indiscriminately killing civilians.

As in most guerrilla wars, it is difficult in Aceh to tell civilians and rebels apart - a point that might be seen in the military's favor. But instead of allowing the media to look into the issue, the military has made it difficult for reporters to discuss civilian casualties.

Two days after the latest offensive began, seven people, including a 13-year-old boy, were shot to death in the North Aceh village of Mata Maplam.

Several domestic and foreign news organizations reported that troops shot the seven because they mistook them for separatists. The reports quoted villagers as denying that the victims had anything to do with the rebels.

The military said its own investigation showed that 10 people died in that firefight - and all of them were rebels, including the 13-year-old, who the military said was working as a spy.

The head of Indonesia's Armed Forces, General Endriartono Sutarto, threatened to sue the French wire service, Agence France Presse, over its report on the incident - and also the Indonesian newspaper Tempo, which carried the French report.

The military then called members of the Indonesian press in for questioning over the incident.

Wahyu Dhyatmika, a reporter for Tempo, said his military interrogators made no threats against him. But he said he was forced to sign a statement detailing his answers to the questioning, which he fears might at some point be used against him in court.

Solahuddin, the head of Indonesia's Alliance of Independent Journalists, said local journalists are now afraid to report the Aceh story in full. "The violence can also trigger self-censorship among journalists…Even there is a case that one radio [station] announced it would stop broadcasting news due to the threat from the parties," he said.

Media groups in Jakarta are lobbying for more freedom for reporters to work, but the government seems to be hardening its position instead. Officials are now considering extending their control by banning foreign journalists from Aceh completely - bringing to mind the old adage that truth is the first casualty of war.