Wed, 02 Jul 2003

`RCTI' crew missing in Aceh

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Senior journalist Erza Siregar and cameraman Ferry Santoro, both from private television station RCTI, went missing on June 29 while covering the war in Aceh, renewing concerns over the safety of journalists in Aceh.

The two reporters were returning on Sunday afternoon from covering a story in the East Aceh regency town of Langsa to their hotel in Lhokseumawe in Aceh Besar regency. But they never arrived.

"Yesterday (on Monday) we were still calm about this," said Mariansyah, a senior RCTI journalist stationed in the provincial capital Banda Aceh. "Not today, though, it has been three days since our colleagues disappeared."

Also missing are Erza's driver, and two local guides who left Lhokseumawe with the RCTI crew.

Their disappearance came just days after the martial law administration in Aceh issued a declaration limiting the movement of journalists covering the military operation.

It also marks the second disappearance of a reporter since the military operation in Aceh began on May 19. The first involved Banda Aceh-based TVRI cameraman Jamaluddin who was found dead after he went missing for about a month. Unconfirmed reports described him as a supporter of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) separatists.

Aceh martial law spokesman Lt. Col. Ditya Sudarsono said they would help find the two, saying that Lhokseumawe Police had began to search for them. According to him, rebels may have taken the reporters hostage.

RCTI declined to comment on the reporters' disappearance. But Ditya said the television company had sent a letter to the martial law administration, asking for help to find their reporters.

Erza is said to have good relationships with GAM leaders as part of his job in covering both sides of the war.

Unlike the previous military operation in Aceh between 1989 and 1998, the Indonesian Military (TNI) has been inviting journalists to cover the war in a copy of the embedded journalists' program during the war in Iraq in March.

Reporters have been able to move freely in the province, and join the military operation. However, the disappearance of the RCTI reporters followed the military's new rulings to tighten media coverage of the war. Right groups have also complained about the strict access to the troubled province, and many Acehnese activists have left fearing military intimidation.

Edwin Nazir, an RCTI reporter based in Lhokseumawe said that Erza left Lhokseumawe at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning in a Kijang minivan. Then, at 4 p.m., Erza called Edwin informing the latter that his team was leaving Langsa and hoped to arrive in Lhokseumawe at 8 p.m.

However, by 9 p.m. Erza and his team had not shown up, and Edwin decided to call Erza, but his cell phone was out of the service area.

There has been no further information about their whereabouts, Edwin said. He predicted that the team went missing in Peureulak area, a GAM stronghold.

Reporters from various media retraced Erza's route from Langsa, asking locals and officers whether they had seen the RCTI Kijang passing the route.

Based on their accounts, the RCTI crew must have disappeared in the Peureulak district in East Aceh regency.

Meanwhile, the North Aceh regency office in Lhokseumawe and the local military command office came under mortar fire on Tuesday night. No one was injured in the attacks.

Bandar Sakti District Police chief Adj. Comr. Subianto said the attack on the regency office shattered several window panes on the third floor and had damaged parts of the office's roof.

It was the first mortar attack in Lhokseumawe.