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Indonesia: Media Blasts Curbs In Aceh

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MEDIA BLASTS CURBS IN ACEH

JAKARTA (Jakarta Post/Pacific Media Watch): The Indonesian media criticized on Friday new guidelines for media coverage in Aceh, saying that rules were effectively hampering the press from obtaining balanced reports on the current integrated operations in the conflict-torn province.

Bambang Harymurti, the chief editor of the daily Tempo Koran, said on Friday that the media had an "obligation to observe and tell our readers what is really going on in Aceh."

Chairperson of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) Ati Nurbaiti, meanwhile, said that the media restrictions made it harder for the public to obtain a balanced report of the war.

She said that learning from the perceived success of embedded journalism in Iraq, the TNI invited journalists to cover the war in Aceh to open up the military campaign to public scrutiny.

"But now we see more constraints apparently coming from the TNI's realization of what public access can lead to -- exposure outside their control," she said.

The martial law administration in Aceh issued on Thursday a declaration banning foreigners from visiting the province and limiting the movements of foreign journalists to the provincial capital Banda Aceh and the capitals of the province's 15 regencies.

Aceh military administrator Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya said on Thursday that the guidelines were aimed at ensuring the safety of foreigners in Aceh.

But, foreign media correspondents in Indonesia lambasted the declaration, saying the regulations had effectively banned foreign media access to the province.

The Jakarta Foreign Correspondents' Club (JFCC) sent on Friday a letter to Coordinating Minister for Security and Political Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Minister of Foreign Affairs Hassan Wirayuda, urging the government to ensure that foreign journalists could travel freely to and within Aceh.

"Many of our members have reported from numerous conflict zones around the world and find the restrictions being imposed in Aceh among the most restrictive ever encountered," the JFCC said in the letter.

Foreign journalists and correspondents may report only from the provincial capital Banda Aceh and the province's 15 regency capitals. Travelling between districts requires a military or police escort.

It also questioned reports of the military banning local media from providing any reporting or video footage to foreign media.

The JFCC said that exchange of news materials was common practice in the media industry, citing for example Indonesian television showing footage from international media.

"It is a violation of press freedom that local media are now being prevented from offering their material, in turn, to foreign media," said the JFCC in its letter.

This criticism has come despite repeated discussions with government officials in the hope that the new rules would continue to facilitate coverage of the war in Aceh.

"The JFCC is deeply concerned, however, that a series of delays and constantly changing government and military rulings is in fact preventing foreign media access to Aceh," it said.

The military arrested on Friday 25-year-old Takagi Tadatomo, a Japanese freelance photographer, who took pictures of refugees in the Bireun regency.

Aceh military operation spokesman Lt. Col. Ahmad Basuki Yani said that Tadatomo did not have a permit from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was told to leave Aceh on Thursday.

Coverage by the local media is subject to restrictions as well. The TNI bans statement from rebels while at the same time encourages the media to send embedded journalists reporting from the military side.

Speaking in a gathering with journalists last week, Aceh Military Operation Commander Brig. Gen. Bambang Darmono reminded them that Aceh was under martial law and that such stringent policies were fully legitimate.

The tighter foreign media rulings add to concerns of a lack of public scrutiny over the war. Rights abuses were rampant in the period between 1989 and 1998 when Aceh was declared a military zone. Over 10,000 people died during the 10-year military operation, mainly civilians.

Now the TNI has turned a cold shoulder to local aid groups, including the government sanctioned National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas Ham).

Meanwhile, international aid groups and outspoken Acehnese activists have virtually left the province.

+++niuswire

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