Terror in Aceh: A Special Report

20 June 2001


JAKARTA — Being a journalist in Aceh means you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. ( It is like eating the Indonesian simalakama fruit: If you eat it your father will die, if you don’t eat it your mother will die.)

The groups involved in the armed struggle in Aceh always want favorable media coverage. Journalists whose coverage is deemed to damage their public image become enemies. As a result, media that try to report in a balanced manner can get caught in a difficult situation — becoming the enemy of both sides. Journalists who work in conflict zones truly understand the following statement: “10 pieces of pleasant news are quickly forgotten, while one piece of unpleasant news will always be remembered.”

All of this rings true in the most recent case involving the Serambi Indonesia newspaper. On Wednesday, June 20, 2001 Aceh’s largest newspaper suspended publication for one day. The reason behind Serambi Indonesia’s decision was that the newspaper had been terrorized by GAM, (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka.) or the Free Aceh Movement. GAM’s ire was triggered by an article published in their Tuesday edition (June 19, 2001) entitled, “Corpses Found Spread Throughout Greater Aceh, An entire family Discovered Dead in Lampuk.” An excerpt of the article follows:

Throughout Monday (June 18) the morgue at Zainoel Abidin Hospital in Banda Aceh received no less than nine corpses unearthed from several locations in greater Aceh. Among those corpses found were the members of an entire family – father, mother and child –discovered near the tourist attraction, Babah Dua Lampuk.

The corpses of the family … were identified as husband and wife, Ali Basyah Dahlan (65), Nurmala (35) and their female child Nuraida (18). The corpses were exhumed by the Indonesian Red Cross and taken to Zainoel Abidin Hospital at 8:30 am (Western Indonesia Time) yesterday after the team collected accounts from local residents.

Indonesia Red Cross sources explained that the three corpses were discovered together… atop a sandy bed at the tourist attraction, Babah Dua Lampuk, located 18 kilometers west of Banda Aceh.

The victims bodies were riddled with bullet wounds… “The three victims died approximately 4 hours before they were discovered,” said a Red Cross cross volunteer quoting the results of a medical examination.

Other sources stated that the family of victims originally hailed from Dewantara sub–district in North Aceh and already lived for almost a year in Ajuen village…in Greater Aceh. The family was taken from the mortuary around 3:00 pm yesterday and brought to their home town in North Aceh.

Were they kidnapped? An alternative source stated that on Sunday night (June 17) at around 10:00 pm (Western Indonesia Time) the Ali Basyah Dahlan household in Desa Ajuen was disturbed by the arrival of a group of armed individuals riding in a Kijang automobile.

It is the last paragraph that provoked GAM’s fury. They were angry with Serambi Indonesia because in their article the armed group mentioned was not identified as Brimob (the official Indonesian Military’s Mobile Unit). In fact it is still unclear who exactly the armed group was. The police point to GAM as the responsible party, while GAM points to the Indonesian Military Mobile Unit.

On Tuesday, June 19, 2001 in a statement made by GAM Rayeuk spokesperson, Ayah Sofyan, GAM threatened to kidnap and kill Serambi Indonesia’s editorial staff, as well as promising to destroy the newspaper’s office.

Serambi Indonesia’s editorial staff was thrown into a frenzied state. A meeting of editorial staff was immediately called. They tried to negotiate with Ayah Sofyan and other GAM military commanders. Finally Ayah Sofyan agreed to permit Serambi Indonesia to print their newspaper on the condition that the newspaper would not report on events in Greater Aceh, the area under his personal control. “Both news about GAM and issues related to TNI/Polri (Indonesian military and police force) cannot be published for a period of one week,” said Ayah Sofyan according to a SEAPA source. Ayah Sofyan also stated that he could not insure the safety of Serambi drivers delivering the paper to other districts. GAM military commanders from other districts concurred with this last statement.

These conditions – censorship and a lack of assurance of the safety of their staff – led Serambi Indonesia to finally decide that they would not publish. Given past occurrences, GAM’s threat to Serambi Indonesia could not be considered inconsequential. Last March a Serambi Indonesia driver was taken captive/kidnapped by GAM for three days. Moreover, several months ago an unknown group attacked and burned several of Serambi Indonesia’s cars.

GAM’s anger towards Serambi Indonesia that exploded last Tuesday is likely the result of aggravation with its coverage that has accumulated over the last few weeks. According to a SEAPA source “GAM also expressed its anger triggered by Serambi’s news coverage on the inclusion of 724 GAM leaders, including Hasan Tiro, on the police’s ‘most wanted’ list.” “GAM feels that Serambi Indonesia has already violated their agreement, referring to an agreement between the two sides that news that is critical of GAM wold not be placed on the newspaper’s front page,” he added.

The press is not only threatened by GAM, but also by groups of officials such as the police and the military. Take, for example, the case of Umar HN, a RCTI television correspondent and Abbas Gani, correspondent for Fakta magazine, who were beaten up by military officers on Saturday, May 12, 2001, when the two journalists were on their to observe the blockading of streets by unknown individuals.

When the journalists arrived on the scene they met with a couple of TNI officials in the process of clearing the street of the blockade. The officials seemed friendly towards them. So friendly in fact, that the armed forces officers asked the journalists for help clearing trees blocking the street.

Upon continuing their journey to Kecamatan (sub-district) Samudera Gedang, located around 8 kilometers from Lhokseumawe, the journalists encountered another group of military clearing a road blockade. However this time the military didn’t seem so happy to see them. The journalists were stopped and frisked; Umar’s handphone, camera and identity card (KTP) were seized. Meanwhile, Abbas Gani not only was frisked but also was slapped and hit. “You journalist! Writing nasty things about the TNI,” snarled a military soldier involved in the attack.

The soldiers agreed to return the belongings that they had seized from the journalists. However, this never happened.

Meanwhile, on the same day, Murizal Hamzah, a journalist from Media Kutaraja, was also attacked by the military while covering the Armed Forces sweeping of GAM in Lhok Nibong, East Aceh. His chest, cheeks and back were hit. His camera along with all of his film was taken by the military soldiers.

Since May 12, 2001, journalists in Aceh have not only suffered physical violations perpetrated by the police and TNI but also from obstacles that have prevented them pursuing their journalistic activities. Namely, journalists are spied upon. This is implemented in the following manner. Journalists cellular telephones must be registered with the security forces of the locale where they are reporting. Journalists must also carry a letter of explanation for having a cellular phone issued by their respective media. This system is used to monitor communication with people suspected of being GAM sympathizers.

Even something that appears to be of little importance, such as riding a motorcycle without a helmet, can also trigger an attack. The most recent case involves by RCTI television station cameraman, M Chalied Umar and Reuters Kameraman, Abdul Halim Mubary and took place on Saturday, March 30, 2001. The two journalists were attacked by security forces from the North Aceh police force. At that time they were riding a motorcycle on their way to their office on Jalan Merdeka Lhokseumawe. However in the middle of this trip they were stopped by a policeman from the North Aceh police force, who was in the process of “sweeping” or clearing the area not far from the big Lhokseumawe terminal. The journalists were inspected under gunpoint. After giving both journalists a hard time for not wearing a helmet, around five other police officers attacked them. Chalied was hit repeatedly in the chest and the stomache until he fell to the ground. The security apparatus continued to punch the two victims, despite the fact that they had stated their business as TV journalists and asked forgiveness for not wearing a helmet, explaining that they were in a rush to get back to their office. However, the security apparatus continued to punch the two journalists.

Ibrahim Ahmad, a Serambi Indonesia journalist, was hit by a member of the Mobile Brigade unit last July. The incident took place when Ahmad was covering the return of refugees. Upon arriving to the refugee camp, Ahmad discovered that the refugees had already returned to their respective homes. He was approached by several policemen from Lhoksukon who had gathered at a food stall. He was asked for a clarification of why he was there.

All of a sudden, a member of the Mobile Brigade asked, “Which of you is a journalist?” Without any sense of hesitation, Ibrahim introduced himself as a journalist. The same Mobile brigade officer proceeded to ask Ibrahim’s intention of coming to the refugee site. Ibrahim replied that he had come to cover the refugees return home. Upon hearing that response, the Mobile Brigade member began punching and kicking him until he fell down.

Being a journalist in Aceh isn’t easy, however, the press does not appear to have bent under the pressure. They continue to dilligently pursue news stories. The choice between protecting their life or getting the story dosen’t appear to overly concern them. “What happens to us is rather insignificant when compared to the suffering of the Achenese people,” expressed Sjamsul Kahar, chief editor of Serambi Indonesia.

Sadly, the number of victims continues to grow. Fresh blood continues to splatter on the ground. According to the Committee for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, Komite Untuk Orang Hilang dan Korban Kekerasaan, or KONTRAS, since March of last year, 525 people have died in Aceh as a result of the conflict. Meanwhile, hundreds of others have been attacked or forcibly detained. [By Solahudin, Advocacy Coordinator, SEAPA Jakarta]

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