A month after an earthquake and a tsunami devastated Sumatra island, and especially Aceh province, Reporters Without Borders today said it was very worried by signs of growing Indonesian army intolerance towards the foreign news media, in which at least five journalists have been briefly detained or asked to leave Aceh and new rules have restricted press work.
"It would be very regrettable if we returned to the situation prevailing before the earthquake, when Aceh province was closed to the foreign media," the press freedom organisation said. "Journalists must have access to all the affected areas and no special regulations should be applied to either the local or international press."
Reporters Without Borders also called on the authorities to explain why they expelled US freelance journalist William Nessen from Jakarta on 24 January, a day after arresting him as he left Aceh province. The authorities have so far just said he violated a territorial ban imposed on him in August 2003 after his first arrest in Aceh. At that time, he was sentenced to 40 days in prison for violating the immigration laws and was banned from Indonesia for a year. But that ban expired in August 2004.
A photojournalist and regular contributor to The San Francisco Chronicle and The Sydney Morning Herald, Nessen (picture) is the only foreign reporter to have covered the Indonesian army’s May 2003 offensive against the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM) from the rebel side.
Nessen told Reporters Without Borders he entered Indonesia and Aceh legally on 2 January, and was arrested by immigration officials as he left Aceh on 23 January, apparently at the request of military intelligence. He was interrogated about his activities in Aceh and, before he was expelled, the order banning him from Indonesian territory was extended to August 2005.
Previously, on 7 January, Martin Chulov and Renee Nowytager of The Australian were threatened and asked to leave the area by Indonesian soldiers who had just come under fire from GAM rebels. "Your duty is to observe the disaster and not the war between the army and the GAM," an officer told them.
Michael Lev, a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, and his Indonesian fixer, Handewi Pramesti, were arrested on 29 December by soldiers in Meulaboh (Aceh) and held for 28 hours.
Several hundred foreign journalists have gone to Aceh province since 26 December. Foreign ministry officials in Medan registered about 100 arrivals between 30 December and 15 January. At President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s instigation, the authorities gave the press a great deal of access to the areas hit by the tsunami.
But the Indonesian army announced on 13 January that journalists and humanitarian workers would henceforth have only limited access to the two main cities, Banda Aceh and Meulaboh. And citing security grounds, the authorities threatened to expel journalists who did not inform them of their plans.
Bruno Bonamigo of the state-owned Radio Canada was a few days later prevented by the authorities from going to Sigli, in the north of Aceh province, to follow the work of Doctors Without Borders.
The Aceh press has meanwhile been badly hit by the earthquake and tsunami. Some 20 local journalists have been killed or are missing, and most news media premises have been destroyed. But with international help, newspapers and radio stations such as the daily Serambi reappeared again just a few days after the tsunami.
The declaration of martial law in Aceh in May 2003 allowed the military authorities to impose very restrictive measures on the press and silence journalists who were covering the bloody war against the GAM rebels. Thereafter, the only way for Indonesian and foreign journalists to enter the theatre of operations was to join the press "pools" attached to army units. Aceh’s few news media were put under surveillance.