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Indonesia 22 May 2003

Restrictions on reporting in Aceh province

Reporters Without Borders today urged the Indonesian authorities to respect press freedom in the province of Aceh where, following the declaration of a state of emergency in the province, the army yesterday banned the news media from reporting statements by the rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Journalists covering the fighting there are now also required to obtain accreditation from the military.

"As long as journalists report statements that are not calls for violence or murder, they are just respecting their fellow citizens’ basic right to be informed," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to the Indonesian defence and security minister, Juwono Sudarsono. "We ask you to ensure that journalists can continue to work normally in this region, despite the state of emergency," he added.

The restrictions on the press in Aceh province (at the northern tip of Sumatra Island) were announced yesterday by Gen. Endang Suwarya, the officer in charge of implementing martial law in Aceh, where it was introduced on 19 May. Citing legislation governing states of emergency, he banned journalists from quoting the GAM’s spokespersons for the duration of the state of emergency.

He said Indonesia’s interests must be paramount in all press coverage. "I demand that all news reports support the nationalist spirit. The interests of the unitary state must come first. No credibility may be accorded to the GAM’s statements, which constantly twist the facts," the general said.

Several news organisation have already had problems since the restrictions were announced. Soldiers threatened reporters from the privately-owned television station Metro TV with expulsion from the province for filming a group of people with GAM logos on their clothes. The people concerned were helping to put out a fire at one of the many schools that have been torched since the start of the army’s offensive. The daily newspaper Serambi Indonesia also received a strong reprimand for alleged bias in favour of the separatists in its coverage of the military operations.

Fighting resumed in the province after the breakdown of the peace talks between the military and the GAM held on 17 and 18 May in Tokyo. The government declared its state of emergency in Aceh the next day, and announced the start of the biggest offensive against the rebels since 1976, one aimed at wiping the GAM out.

The separatist rebellion in Aceh has gone on for 26 years and has left a toll 10,000 dead, most of them civilians. The central government in Djakarta rules out any possibility of independence for the province, which is rich in hydrocarbons.

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