Wed, 30 Apr 2003

'Embedded journalism threatens independence'

Kurniawan Hari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The objectivity and independence of media coverage on Aceh could be threatened should journalists be embedded with Indonesian troops after they launch a military operation in the troubled province.

Media analysts demanded that the Indonesian press always seek out the truth as its ultimate goal as this would benefit the Acehnese people.

"Journalists must make use of the situation for the benefit of the people," Press Council chairman Atmakusumah Astraatmadja told The Jakarta Post here on Tuesday.

He said that journalists would not be able to maintain their independence if they were traveling with a military unit. However, such lack of objectivity and independence could be rectified to some extent by increasing the amount of information being reported from both sides.

Leo S. Batubara of the Indonesian Press and Broadcasting Society (MPPI) and Ignatius Haryanto of the Institute for Press and Development Studies (LSPP) concurred with Atmakusumah, saying that the professionalism of journalists should be upheld to maintain independence during war coverage.

The observers were commenting on the recent statement by military spokesman Maj. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin that the military would "provide protection" for journalists on field assignment in Aceh, including after the launch of a military operation.

The military would also hold a media briefing everyday to ensure field reporters gathered the news "transparently and avoided unnecessary distortion of information".

Sjafrie stated that information would be supplied only to those elements of the media that supported the Unitary Republic of Indonesia.

The announcement by the military seemed reminiscent to many observers of the embedding of journalists with military units during the just concluded U.S.-led attack on Iraq, when the press was criticized in some quarters for failing to produce balanced reporting, and for lacking objectivity.

Despite warning of the dangers to journalistic independence, Leo nevertheless hailed the openness of the military, adding that it would curb the possibility of human rights abuses and give the people more access to information.

Citing experiences in the past, he said that during the 30 years of the New Order regime, military operations in East Timor, Irian Jaya and Aceh had always been closed to public scrutiny.

"It turned out later that there were numerous human rights abuses committed during these operations," Leo said.

He added that the openness offered by the Indonesian military should be supported as it might be able to prevent human rights abuses during the operation.

Leo hoped that the embedding of journalists would encourage Indonesian soldiers to attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Aceh people, rather than only concentrating on defeating the separatist rebel group.

Therefore, Leo suggested that the media assign only experienced journalists to the field in Aceh as inexperienced ones would end up just parroting the military line.

Haryanto meanwhile suggested that journalists emulate medical workers in conflict zones, who take no sides but continue to do their jobs professionally.