Thu, 19 Jun 2003

'Restricting foreign journalists in Aceh counterproductive'

Muninggar Sri Saraswati, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The government's restrictive policy on the presence of foreign journalists in covering the military offensive in Aceh could disrupt its own efforts to wage a clean war in the violence-torn province, says a press observer.

"Such a policy could be counterproductive as the government is also seeking international support for its fight against the armed rebellion," Press Council deputy chairman Leo Batubara said here on Wednesday.

He argued that the presence of foreign journalists in Aceh was needed to oversee the implementation of martial law and to disseminate accurate information on it in an attempt to win support from the international community.

With the presence of foreign journalists in Aceh, Indonesia could show the international community its strong commitment to repairing its poor record on human rights during the military operation from 1989 through 1998, he said.

"If the war is really clean, why should journalists be restricted in covering the military offensive there? Logically, people would then think that we were hiding something," Leo remarked.

He urged the government to ensure the freedom of the press and allow local and foreign journalists to cover the operation and produce balanced reports on the war.

According to Leo, despite the emergency law justifying the imposition of martial law, the government should no longer regulate how the media should cover the war as this law was out of date.

Law No. 23/1959 on emergencies allows the authorities to restrict journalists in carrying out their work in areas where a state of emergency has been imposed.

Atika Schubert, a journalist with U.S.-based CNN, hoped that the requirements imposed by the government on foreign journalists in Aceh would not disrupt their freedom to carry out their journalistic duties.

"We have yet to get more information ... but the requirement for a surat jalan (accreditation) for foreign journalists. Obviously, we oppose any threats to press freedom," said Atika, who also chairs the foreign correspondents' club in Jakarta.

She believed that it would be another setback for Indonesia if the government imposed regulations limiting the freedom of journalists to do their jobs, including investigating controversies and interviewing locals.

Last month, a report quoting eyewitnesses claiming civilian murders irked the military. They threatened to take legal action against any newspapers that ran the story.

M. Wahid Supriyadi, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, said on Wednesday that his office had yet to issue the procedures required on the part of foreign journalists for covering the military operation as foreign minister Hassan Wirayuda was currently in Phonm Penh, Cambodia.

"But basically it is the same as the presidential decree (on the issue), expect for some adjustments," he said.

Wahid said that journalists and correspondents with foreign media, be they Indonesians or foreigners, must comply with the regulation.

All journalists, he said, must be recommended by the foreign ministry, must report to the martial law administration and must obey the "rules of the game".

Wahid earlier said that a permit from the foreign ministry for a foreign journalist would be valid for 30 days, and could be extended for another 30 days.

The new regulation has been effective since Tuesday.