Statement on the conviction of US journalist William Nessen

SMUR – August 4, 2003
William Nessen after surrendering to Indonesian soldiers (Liputan 6)

[The following is a translation of a statement issued on August 4 by the Central Leadership Committee of the Acehnese based Student Solidarity for the People (Solidaritas Mahasiswa Untuk Rakyat, SMUR) following the conviction of US free-lance journalist William Nessen for alleged visa violations while working in Aceh.]

No one disagrees that at this time Aceh represents a battle field which has become a political bargaining chip for the military in the lead-up to the 2004 general elections. The decision to [declare] a military emergency [in Aceh on May 19] though Presidential Decree Number 28/2003 is proof that the power of the military which was propped up by the New Order [regime of former President Suharto] is again being resurrected in its entirety by the regime of President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Vice-president Hamzah Haz. Added to this the persecution of the military operation in Aceh has been far from professional because it has sacrificed civilian lives and silenced the media which represents one of the means of information and education for the people.

Since the military emergency came into force in Aceh the people of Indonesia have been treated to [endless] reports of violence, so may Free Aceh Movement [GAM] members killed, so may TNI [Indonesian armed forces] soldiers wounded and killed and other reports of violence. It is not an easy matter for members of the press to report [on issues] other than information by the TNI’s media centre, because of the excesses they have experienced when they report on stories which have not been issued by the media centre, for example the beating of journalist 68h by TNI soldiers when working in Aceh, and the abduction of a RCTI journalist by GAM (although it was on the grounds that press vehicles are often used by the TNI to carry out intelligence operations) who is yet to be released. This is evidence that the parties in dispute in Aceh have absolutely no respect for the work of the press which in fact must be supported by all parties.

The most interesting case is the trial of journalist William Nessen, an American free lance journalist who was yesterday sentenced to one month and ten days jail by the Banda Aceh state court.

Since Presidential Decree Number 43/2003 was issued which prohibits the foreign media from covering the military emergency in Aceh, the government has aimed to further isolate Aceh from the outside world, while in fact it is at this time that the Acehnese people truly need assistance from the domestic and international community to immediately end the war. The prohibitions on the foreign press on covering the military emergency in Aceh is [has been implemented because of the] TNI and police’s great fear is that the mistakes that they are committing will be publicised in the international community. The TNI is repeating the old pattern of creating civilian victims [and are muzzling the press so that the kind of] mistakes they made in East Timor will not publicised to the international community.

The decision handed down by the Banda Aceh state court against William Nessen strongly conflicts with the freedom of the press who’s existence is now coming under threat. The TNI is of the view that press freedom represents a specter which haunts the failure of their military operation in Aceh, the essence of this kind of position being that the ethics of the press, one of which is to report in accordance with the facts, is under threat, and this has become a dilemma for journalists who are covering the war in Aceh.

Based on the realities above, the Central Leadership Committee of SMUR states the following:

1. We strongly reject the decision by the Banda Aceh state court against William Nessen as representing a threat to press freedom which will further isolate Aceh from the international press;

2. We call for the withdrawal of Presidential Decree Number 28/2003 on the military emergency and Presidential Decree Number 43/2003 on prohibiting foreign press coverage in Aceh, because both of these decrees are a threat to the democracy which has been won by the Indonesian nation.

3. We ask that all parties not to obstruct the work of the press and fully support efforts by journalists who wish to uphold peaceful journalism and uphold the code of ethics of journalism.

Banda Aceh August 4, 2003
Central Leadership Committee of Student Solidarity for the People

Rahmat, secretary general

[Translated by James Balowski.]