The incident marked the first assault on journalists. It came only three days after the Indonesian government began its military crackdown on the 27-year-old separatist group known as the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).
The attack was followed by a series of assaults including the kidnapping of two journalists from another Indonesian broadcaster RCTI on 29 June 2003.
Two months after the kidnapping, the Free Aceh Movement, which has claimed responsibility for their abduction, has still not freed the two journalists.
“The International Federation of Journalists reminds GAM that journalists are independent citizens and cannot be held responsible for the policies and actions of any group involved in the conflict in Aceh. It is indefensible response to use journalists and the media as pawns in this conflict,” said Christopher Warren, the IFJ president in a statement.
The IFJ (International Federation of Journalists) is an international organisation representing over 500,000 journalists worldwide.
“Both the military and the Free Aceh Movement do not respect the roles of journalists,” said Ati Nurbaiti, chairperson of the Jakarta-based Independent Journalist Association.
“They want the press to be their public relation officers, something that clearly violates the core meaning of press as neutral observers,” Nurbaiti said.
Indonesian security forces are
As the military offensive continues, freedom of press in Aceh has come increasingly under threat.
In June 2003, the government issued new regulations regarding press coverage in the province. “I want all news published to contain the spirit of nationalism,” said Aceh’s military operations chief, General Endang Suwarya, in a statement.
The new restrictions followed a string of incidents involving foreigners in Aceh. One of these involved an US journalist, William Nessen, who angered the Indonesian Military (TNI) for covering the war from the rebel perspective.
The new government regulations have constrained news coverage in this restive province in other ways as well.
Foreign journalists have been forced to go through a series of bureaucratic requirements to obtain the required permit to cover the conflict.
Local journalists have reportedly been threatened with violence. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has recorded six incidents in which press vehicles have been shot at.
“Restricted access to sources, interrogations by the military, blocked telephone line and continuous monitoring by the military has tied the hands of journalists,” Nurbaiti said in an interview.
As for the restrictions imposed on foreign journalists, Press Council deputy chairman Leo Batubara warned the government that it could be counterproductive as the government is also seeking international support for its fight against the armed rebels.
“The presence of foreign journalists in Aceh is needed to win support from the international community,” Batubara was quoted as saying by the Jakarta Post newspaper.
“Restricted access to sources, interrogations by the military, blocked telephone line and continuous monitoring by the military has tied the hands of journalists”
–Ati Nurbaiti, Chairperson, Independent Journalist Association.
State Communications and Information Minister Syamsul Muarif asserted that restrictions on the press were necessary in the national interest.
Legislators in Jakarta have also backed the curbs on journalists. During a hearing with Syamsul Muarif, a number of legislators expressed concern over reportage by both domestic and international media.
“The government told us not to publish enemy propaganda,” chairperson of the Jakarta Foreign Correspondent Club, Atika Shubert said.
“But what’s the definition of it? If that means we can’t quote the Free Aceh Movement then we are not allowed to cover both sides and that violates the basic rule of balanced reporting,” Shubert said.
She argued that although journalists appreciate the concerns over their safety, the government should understand the code of ethics the journalists must abide by in order to report objectively and fairly.
Recent incidents where villagers had been terrorised, threatened and found dead after giving TV interviews had made it more difficult for journalists to do their work.
“When you know that your TV camera can be a deadly weapon to your sources, you become wary,” Nurbaiti said explaining how the incidents have made many journalists refrain from interviewing civilians.
Despite all the restrictions imposed on journalists and the coverage of the Aceh war, many media organisations have encouraged journalists to stick to their code of ethics.
“This situation should be taken as a learning ground for both the military and the journalists,” Deputy Chairman of the Press Council, Leo Batubara, said in an interview.
“The military needs to realize the importance of journalism in winning the hearts and minds of the people and the journalists need to remember the importance of balanced reporting to fulfil the society’s rights for information” he said.