Media Crackdown in Indonesia


The Indonesian government is once again using nationalistic propaganda and media censorship to gain public support in its military offensive in Aceh, but journalists and activists say Jakarta would do well to learn from its previous crackdown in East Timor.

Indeed, critics say, the start of the attack on Aceh on May 19 not only marked the launch of armed operations but the start of propaganda warfare in the oil-rich province at the northern tip of Sumatra island.

A separatist rebellion by the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym GAM, has been simmering there for 27 years. Jakarta declared martial law in May, after the latest peace talks collapsed.

At least seven Indonesian soldiers were killed in a clash with GAM rebels this week, military officials said Tuesday. The military claims to have killed more than 150 rebels since May 19, but GAM disputes this.

Journalists have been told that nationalism and censorship are the rules of the day. Minister for Communications and Information Syamsul Muarif has said: "Indonesian journalists should be concerned with the country's interests."

But this remark shows that Jakarta officials have not learned enough from the government's actions in East Timor, says journalist Moch Faried Cahyono.

In 1999, East Timor voted to secede from the Indonesian state, 24 years after Jakarta sent troops to occupy it in 1975. Tens of thousands were killed in the occupation.

Cahyono, who was with 'Tempo' magazine in 1999 when Indonesia's repression in East Timor reached its peak, recalls former president Suharto's words on reporting on East Timor back then. "Suharto said in 1991 that he hoped that Indonesian media would not report on East Timor except when they received information from government sources," he said in an interview.

In 1994, 'Tempo' and two publications were banned from publishing by the Suharto government, among others because of their independent reporting on East Timor.

Today, Cahyono says, Indonesia's military is using a new media strategy, adapted from the U.S.-led war on Iraq, of embedding journalists with the troops. But though it is new, it has the same aim of ingraining into journalists the idea that patriotism means supporting the government's position and offensive on Aceh.

Shortly before May 19, about 50 Indonesian journalists assigned to cover the war in Aceh received training from the military on war survival tactics. They have since been allowed to follow military units in their operations, to wear military uniforms and use their equipment.

Local and international media groups have criticized these as an attempt by the military to manipulate reporting by the media.

"It is an attempt to manipulate information -- something that they learnt from what the U.S. government did in Iraq," said Solahuddin, secretary-general of Jakarta-based Alliance for Independent Journalists.

In May, Aceh's martial-law commander, Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya, frankly told journalists that they were free to report on actions of security personnel, "but there should be no reports from GAM and reports that praise GAM".

"We will bring a halt to the news from the spokesmen of GAM because they are turning the facts upside down," he argued.

Local media reports say that the military is considering more media restrictions under martial law, possibly including the expulsion of journalists not accredited with the armed forces.

Meantime, there have been a growing number of reports in local and international media on the military's brutality against civilians in Aceh and the number of people displaced by the war.

In late May, human rights groups estimate that more than 15,000 people have been displaced by the military operations in Aceh, but Jakarta authorities say these reports are biased. Muarif complains that media tend to report on "soldiers dragging corpses" rather than on the government's efforts to rebuild damaged schools.

"We are weak in international public relations, and because of that, reports by foreign media are often damaging," he said.

But nearly a month into the latest offensive in Aceh, both media and non-government reports continue to cite human rights abuses, including the killing of children and civilians. Hundreds of schools have been torched by unidentified arsonists while the military and GAM blame each other for the attacks.

Indonesian media and activists working on Aceh say that gathering information has also become more difficult. Local sources, they say, are afraid to talk due to threats from both the military and GAM.

Journalists have not been immune from these threats. "Acehnese journalists have experienced threats from both the military and GAM for a long time," said Solahuddin. "These threats include their lives and their families. Now they have been extended to journalists from outside Aceh."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has also issued a statement on several cases of the shooting of journalists by unidentified gunmen.

An IPS source in Banda Aceh says two Acehnese journalists who work for an international magazine were sent out of the province earlier this month, after receiving several threats.

An Acehnese journalist from the independent 'Tempo Daily' is under interrogation by military for the sources of a story that reported on the killing of villagers, including a 13-year-old child, by the military. The magazine says it quoted a foreign news agency in the report, which said the soldiers had insisted that the villagers were with GAM.

Cahyono says that although the media tactics used by the military in East Timor and Aceh do not differ that much, what does make a big difference is Indonesia's political environment today.

Journalists were muzzled in the Suharto era and for much of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. Suharto was ousted in 1998, after which East Timor was allowed to vote on its future. They are now relatively free to be critical of the state. "It is not the time for the military to control media any more," Cahyono said.

In a May 30 editorial entitled 'Don't Shoot the Messengers', the English-language daily 'Jakarta Post' urged the Indonesian military to remember what happened in East Timor.

"The moment the military starts shooting journalists, either literally or figuratively, is the moment when it starts losing the propaganda war. And we know, based on our experience in East Timor a few years ago, how costly that could be," wrote the daily.

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