Indonesia’s War on Journalists


Good news came Tuesday from Indonesia, where American journalist William Nessen was successfully allowed to leave rebel territory in oil-rich Aceh, where he had been covering the struggle by Aceh rebels to win independence from Indonesia and to resist a major assault by Indonesian troops.

Nessen had been overtly threatened with arrest and even death by notoriously brutal Indonesian military officers, and a major campaign had been mounted by the Committee to Protect Journalists and other organizations to protect him and negotiate an agreement for his safe return from the jungle.

In the end, after considerable pressure on an initially indifferent U.S. embassy and State Department, an arrangement was reportedly negotiated whereby Nessen was able to cross over into Indonesian military-controlled territory in the presence of an officer from the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia and the chief information officer of the Indonesian military. Nessen, an accredited journalist who was writing from Indonesia for the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle, agreed as part of the deal to be questioned by military personnel in the presence of a U.S. embassy official.

Nessen’s “crime”–and the reason his life was in danger in recent days–is that he had failed to abide by the Indonesian military’s restraints on journalists covering the counter-insurgency campaign in Aceh. The Indonesian army had recently taken a page from the Pentagon, and had “embedded” journalists with its troops, making that the only way for journalists to cover the campaign legally. Nessen, following the old rules of reporting, had simply gone off on his own to cover the story, walking into rebel territory. Nessen had also filed reports from the war zone via cell phone, in which he accused the Indonesian military of committing attrocities, including bombing villages and deliberately causing starvation. (His mention of the role of U.S. military equipment in the campaign, including F-16 fighter-bombers probably didn’t endear him with American diplomats in Jakarta or Washington, either.)

His harrowing experience–he was caught in one fire-fight and had to abandon his camera and video equipment, which were subsequently found and impounded by the Indonesian army–raises an interesting question: How would the Pentagon handle a reporter who was as daring and enterprising as Nessen these days?

I am afraid the answer is not pretty to contemplate.

One good example is provided by the current war in Iraq (yeah, I know, Bush says it’s been over since May 1, but does anyone really believe that?).

Those journalists who didn’t listen when, on the eve of America’s invasion of Iraq, the president urged them to flee Baghdad, found themselves subject to attack by bombers, in the case of Al Jazeera’s office, and tanks, in the case of the hotel where all other foreign journalists were quartered. Several of these courageous journalists who stayed on in Baghdad paid for their pluck with their lives.

Several other journalists in southern Iraq who went off on their own during the early days of battle were also slain, though the circumstances there are less clear.

And what about that other war–the so-called war on terrorism? One can only imagine how the Ashcroft “Justice” Department would treat any reporter who managed to get inside the Al Qaeda operation to follow it’s side of the battle.

Armed with the power to secretly arrest and imprison anyone, and to hold her or him incommunicado indefinitely as an “enemy combatant,” it’s possible we wouldn’t even know about such a reporter’s exploits. Like Jose Padilla, an native-born American citizen who has been held without charge and without access to a lawyer (or even a family member) now in a South Carolina military brig for over a year, they could simply disappear along with their stories. (For all we know, given the level of secrecy imposed by the Bush Administration in this case, Padilla was just a freelance journalist trying to get a story!)

Given this kind of threat, it is perhaps understandable that there has been so little aggressive reporting being done by mainstream journalists regarding America’s new wars. That is a tragedy.

We need more William Nessens out there.

For now though, we can at least celebrate Nessen’s escape from the Indonesian Army, and look forward to reading about his experiences with Aceh independence fighters.


The good news regarding Nessen was tempered with word on Thursday that despite promises to U.S. diplomatic officials that he would not be charged with anything, subsequent to his voluntarily turning himself in to Indonesian military authorities in Aceh, he was arrested and charged with violating two sections of Indonesia’s immigration law. One section requires foreigners to state their intentions for living in Indonesia; a second requires foreign visitors to notify military or police authorities if traveling to conflict areas.

Nessen, who was in Indonesia on a journalist’s visa, had gone to Aceh before the military declared martial law in the province and began requiring special permission to visit the troubled province.

Under the law, he can now be held in police custody for 20 days, followed by a possible extension of 40 days. At the end of those three months, authorities could decide to prosecute him.

Lin Neumann, Asia consultant with the Committee to Protect Journalists, who had been involved in negotiations to win safe conduct across military lines for Nessen, expressed surprise at the latest turn of events, saying, “The spirit of talks with the Indonesian authorities was that Nessen would be allowed to leave the country if he turned himself in, and we think that should be honored.”

U.S. embassy officials in Jakarta also expressed surprise at the detention and charges leveled against Nessen.

Those seeking more information about Nessen’s case, or about how they can help, should go to the CPJ website

Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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