Indonesia declared martial law in Aceh effective at midnight on Monday, May 19, beginning a massive military offensive to crush the separatist Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym as GAM. The campaign is the country's biggest military operation since it invaded East Timor in 1975.
CPJ has documented a series of alarming incidents in which journalists have been targeted while driving on the main road between the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, and the town of Lhokseumawe. All of these incidents occurred in Teupin Raya Subdistrict, on a stretch of road near the village of Beureunen, about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away from a security post manned by the Mobile Police Brigade (Brimob), a paramilitary unit. None of the journalists was injured.
- On May 21, a vehicle carrying journalists from the Indonesian broadcaster TV 7 was ambushed by snipers in Teupin Raya Subdistrict while the crew was traveling from Banda Aceh to Lhokseumawe. Rizal Wahyu, a TV 7 reporter, was in the vehicle at the time, along with TV 7 cameraman Yusrizal (who goes by only one name). The two said there were several bursts of automatic gunfire, with the bullets passing close enough to hear.
- On May 24, Wahyu and Yusrizal of TV 7 were again ambushed by unidentified gunmen at the same location in Teupin Raya at around 2 p.m. while they were returning to Banda Aceh from Lhokseumawe. One of the bullets hit the car's left front bumper. A second car traveling close behind carried reporter Delphi Sinambela, who works for the Indonesian channel Trans TV. Both vehicles were clearly marked "PRESS."
- On May 25, along the same stretch of road in Teupin Raya, unidentified gunmen fired on two cars carrying six journalists, including Kemal Jufri, a photographer for Time magazine; Andrew Marshall, a Time reporter; and Orlando de Guzman, Southeast Asia correspondent for Public Radio International's "The World" program and a frequent contributor to the BBC. The journalists' vehicles were both clearly marked "PRESS." Journalists said sustained gunfire from at least two rifles followed the cars for at least a minute, and that the bullets were close enough to hear.
On the same day, in a separate incident at the same location, snipers fired at a car carrying journalists from the Indonesian broadcaster Metro TV. Bullets shattered the rear window of the vehicle and also hit the driver-side door.
Also on May 25, a TV 7 crew stopped in Teupin Raya Subdistrict to take photographs of burned-out buses and trucks lying along the road. Unidentified men wearing camouflage uniforms sped toward them on motorcycles and began firing at them with rifles.
- On May 27, a vehicle carrying Associated Press photographer Achmad Ibrahim was ambushed at the same location. [See CORRECTION]
Security forces restrict the media
Military officials in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, have pledged to avoid civilian casualties and the use of excessive force in Aceh. The government has even taken the unprecedented step of "embedding" about 50 Indonesian journalists with the troops—taking a cue from the press policy adopted by the U.S. military in Iraq.
However, from the first days of the campaign, the head of the martial law administration in Aceh made it clear that he would not tolerate independent reporting on the conflict. Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya, the military commander in Aceh, warned journalists not to report any statements issued by GAM leaders and said, "I want all news published to contain the spirit of nationalism," according to the national English-language daily Jakarta Post. "Put the interests of the unitary state of Indonesia first." Suwarya added that he will soon issue rules governing press coverage, and that all journalists will have to be accredited by the military command in Aceh.
During the last two weeks, security forces in Aceh have detained, interrogated, and threatened local journalists and foreign correspondents who have reported on abuses committed by soldiers and police in the course of the joint military operation. In addition, several reporters told CPJ that security forces have also detained and harassed their sources. In most cases, journalists did not want to reveal their identities for fear of further reprisals against them and their sources. In particular, journalists who investigated reports that the military executed 10 unarmed villagers in Peusangan Subdistrict, in Bireun, have come under intense pressure by military authorities in Aceh.
Combatants masquerading as journalists?
CPJ is also disturbed by reports from several journalists that armed men have been seen traveling on the main road between Banda Aceh and Lhokseumawe in vehicles marked "PRESS." In at least two cases, journalists said the men were dressed in camouflage uniforms. CPJ urges Indonesian military authorities to investigate any possible misuse of press vehicles by security forces or militias. Such practices endanger the lives of all working journalists, who may be mistaken for combatants.
Some reporters are worried that the military's practice of "embedding" Indonesian journalists puts them at greater risk of being targeted by rebels because the journalists may not be seen as neutral observers. Embedded journalists who travel with the units during military operations wear special uniforms that are barely distinguishable from those worn by soldiers, further complicating the issue. GAM reportedly has a list of the embedded journalists, and one rebel commander told a foreign correspondent that GAM considers these reporters to be legitimate military targets.
GAM rebels did detain one Indonesian journalist last week and only released her after she managed to convince them that she was not part of the embedded program. The Jakarta Post reported that the military evacuated an embedded journalist after learning that GAM rebels were looking for her.
CPJ sent a letter last week to Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri raising concerns about efforts by military authorities to curb the media in Aceh. We have not received a response. [Read the letter]
"CPJ once again urges Indonesian authorities to guarantee that security forces will not interfere with press freedom," said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. "Furthermore, we call on officials to do everything in their power to guarantee the safety of journalists covering this conflict."
Based on information from journalists in the region, CPJ's May 29 press release documenting a series of incidents in the restive Aceh province of Indonesia erroneously reported that "On May 27, a vehicle carrying Associated Press photographer Achmad Ibrahim was ambushed" on the main road between the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, and the town of Lhokseumawe.
CPJ has learned that this attack never happened and regrets the error.