Thu, 19 Jun 2003

Free speech on Aceh curtailed

Ati Nurbaiti, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

An alarming trend is unfolding before our eyes -- the closing of ranks on the Aceh issue with overwhelming public support for the "integrated operation", while it will be difficult for varying views to emerge if the media cannot quickly overcome the constraints facing the need for balanced coverage. The suggested solid public support as indicated by media polls has the potential danger of the government closing its ears to valuable input, not to mention the views of the Acehnese themselves.

A media survey on the Aceh issue conducted by a forum of non- government organizations, the Working Group on Aceh, supported by the Partnership for Governance Reform in Indonesia, recently suggested among others that four leading national dailies largely quoted only Indonesian authorities during the period of survey from April 10 to May 10.

In the first two weeks, the Group reported, the media still indicated optimism of a peaceful settlement in Aceh since the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, signed by the government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), was signed on Dec. 9 in Geneva.

But in the later period, ahead of the government's announcement of operations "to resume security", the leaning of coverage was heavily bent towards favoring a military approach.

Further content analysis on the media is yet to be done, but recently a number of people have suggested that coverage entering the third week of the "security operation" has become better, with more focus on the impact on the civilian population, compared to the first weeks of the operation.

With little exposure to "peace journalism" the media is practically on its own now to rush to learn what issues to cover in this war, also apart from focusing on the population, while people are often scared of being interviewed.

Without a convenient check list on issues to be covered, and with the demand that journalists must come up each time with something new, we have some strange stories like those focusing on the American journalist William Nessen. It may be valid to question whether he is with the intelligence service but people have also become intrigued with the spotlight on his marriage to an Acehnese who reportedly ran from her Indonesian husband to join him.

Meanwhile there are still constraints to be overcome if one is to maintain credibility and avoid repeating the mistakes of the American mainstream media, which many say have become quite partisan, particularly during the war in Iraq.

The May 27 attack on the office of Kontras, a non-government organization that spoke out against the war in Aceh, was an early reminder of the stance expected of "patriotic" citizens. Military officials repeatedly reminded journalists to be "nationalistic" in their coverage. Reporters in Aceh have long complained of the pressure from GAM members to prove their "Aceh nationalism".

Since the military operations journalists have reported being frequently summoned by military officers in Aceh to "clarify" their reports to the point of being unable to work since the clarification sessions can last for three hours, to be continued the next day. While editors in Jakarta stress that reporters must interview civilians, journalists worry not only of their own safety but of their sources, given earlier reports that sources have been later questioned either by the military or by GAM people. "I'd better just sit near the battle field and count casualties," said one television reporter.

What about other sources like activists and civil servants? Activists in Aceh fear for their safety and since the government announced the special screening (litsus) for civil servants, the employees and their families will have to be careful about how they talk, dress and act, for they might be associated with GAM.

On Saturday a producer from SCTV, Dhandy Dwi Laksono, said he was told that he need not continue to work, following questions of his reports on Aceh. However the management has said that Dhandy's contract was not renewed after assessment.

In Aceh, reporters have difficulty in getting the GAM side and military commander Gen. Endriartono Sutarto has even said that one should not cover both sides in a war.

The press must be doing all they can to get balanced coverage, while in the face of such constraints we also need to rapidly assess what items are missing to enable an intelligent discourse on the issue, with the interests of the Acehnese as the priority.

Without the media taking this role we will be heading further back into the days of the past, when mass gatherings of pledging loyalty (as we see now in Aceh), amid an often nervous press, were considered enough proof of genuine expressions of public sentiment.

So much for reformasi and its highly praised achievement of the ability of Indonesians to express their views without fear.

The writer also chairs the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI).