When I was assigned to cover the biggest military operation by the Indonesian Defence Forces since the 1975 Seroja operations in East Timor, I was well aware that this would be a tough assignment. I knew that the warring factions — the Indonesian Defence Force (TNI) and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) — recognised the important role of the media in any conflict, and would prepare themselves to win the propaganda war. I was not mistaken.
The TNI, which has a notorious record of human rights abuses, was the most prepared for this propaganda war. Recognising that they had been the targets of negative media campaigns both domestically and internationally for years, the TNI set about altering their media strategy. Borrowing from American tactics used in the invasion of Iraq, the TNI decided to train and deploy ‘embedded journalists’ in Aceh.
At the request of my media organisation, I joined the ‘embedded journalist’ program organised by TNI. Participants were offered the opportunity to cover the military operations in Aceh by being close to the TNI action. This would give us direct access to what was happening on the battlefield. More importantly, this meant that the military could monitor journalists’ work. It put the TNI in constant contact with journalists, and gave them the ability to feed their own version of events to journalists via their media ‘information’ centre.
In preparation for being embedded, I undertook four days training at the Army’s Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) Sanggabuana military training camp in Karawang, West Java. The TNI dubbed the training ‘emergency aid training for journalists’. The program kicked off one week before the declaration of martial law in Aceh.
Our tutors, mostly Javanese soldiers from Kostrad, were most accommodating. Their stated objective was to teach us how to avoid being killed while reporting in Aceh. We were tutored on, among other things, first aid, how to avoid getting lost in the jungle, survival in the jungle, how to survive in a gunfight, and other such skills.
Nationalism and patriotism
Running parallel to these practical lessons, the TNI also briefed us on the subjects of nationalism and patriotism. Indeed, we undertook the training on the condition that we would abide by military conventions at Sanggabuana base. For example, we had to pay our respects to the national flag when gathered for lunch or dinner, and we were urged to sing nationalistic songs while marching in the jungle. These conventions and classes were expected to make journalists more nationalistic and thus more supportive of the TNI’s actions in Aceh.
In general, our tutors treated us with respect, in part because we were journalists — better educated than themselves and with close contacts to the upper echelons of the TNI. However, high-ranking TNI officials left us in little doubt as to our role — we were to be supportive of TNI in our coverage of the conflict. Speaking informally to a crowd of journalists one lunch time, a TNI general put it to us that: ‘Journalists must choose whether they will be on the side of TNI and the nation, or on the side of GAM’. The drawl of George Bush’s declaration that ‘you are either with us, or with the terrorists’ rang loud and clear through his statement. The general added that ‘I suggest you work on the side of the nation and TNI, because if you put yourselves on the side of GAM, then you will betray the nation’.
Between TNI and GAM
The challenges of being an embedded journalist became increasingly complex. GAM was aware that TNI was orchestrating a pre-emptive strike in the propaganda war by training and controlling the media. Threatened with losing the propaganda war, GAM warned that they would not be responsible for the safety of journalists embedded in the conflict zone. We interpreted this as a thinly veiled threat that if our coverage were too sympathetic of TNI, we would be targeted by GAM. This was re-enforced by GAM’s claim that they had obtained a list of the journalists to be embedded after a legislator at the House of Representatives in Jakarta made the list public during a session with TNI top brass.
Once in the field, the pressure from both sides increased dramatically, and there was little pretence that we would be able to exercise independent and free expression. Whenever I visited combat zones and tried to interview members of the local community, there were always several outsiders — GAM or TNI, I could not tell — observing closely what I was asking people. Cars rented by journalists were shot at repeatedly. It was almost impossible to determine whether GAM or TNI or both were responsible for this. Judging by the fact that there were no fatalities, I assume that these were warnings to journalists to think carefully about how we covered events. We were not given unfettered access to local communities.
It seemed highly plausible that I could be abducted by either TNI or GAM, should I produce news unsympathetic to either side. We were being monitored by both GAM intelligence (cantoi), who were integrated into the local community, and by TNI intelligence officers, many of whom were locals whose duties included spying on the media. Although the TNI banned journalists from contacting GAM, we sometimes did so in order to try to ascertain first hand what was going on in the field, at great risk to our lives and livelihoods.
While we tried to minimise the risks of being abducted or abused by taking precautions such as going to the field as a group, this was not entirely successful. A cameraman for the state-run television station (TVRI) was abducted, and his dead body was found a month later. TNI claimed that he was abducted and killed by GAM, but rumours abounded that he was abducted and killed by TNI intelligence officers for being too sympathetic to GAM.
Perhaps the most highly published abduction was that of television reporter Ersa Siregar and his cameraman Ferry Santoro, who were allegedly abducted by GAM in Peurelak district in East Aceh, along with three civilians (two of whom were the wives of TNI officers). GAM later claimed that they wished to ask Ersa, the most senior reporter in Aceh, why news coverage of the conflict by Indonesian journalists had been so sympathetic to TNI.
Whose story is it?
TNI was certainly the dominant power in this conflict, and no less so in the propaganda war. Having been forced on the back foot by the reform movement in 1998, and being subject to tight scrutiny by the international and local mass media — this media at times even being decidedly pro-GAM — TNI leveraged all they could from the imposition of martial law in Aceh. They now had the legal basis to do all they could to crush GAM and to ensure that the military operations were a success, or at least portrayed as such through the controlled media. Under martial law, TNI had the right to ban any media coverage that they considered threatening to the success of the military operations. They were allowed to confiscate communication equipment such as mobile phones and two-way radios. They could also impose news blackouts in Aceh without warning.
The absolute power given to the military through martial law, as well as the use of veiled and blatant threats compelled most journalists to cover the war in a way sympathetic to TNI. There were set codes of coverage. For example, if a TNI soldier was killed, he had ‘passed away’ (gugur). However, if a GAM member was killed, he was ‘shot dead’ (mati tertembak). We were to refer to GAM members as ‘rebels’ (pemberontak) rather than ‘freedom fighters’ (pejuanga. Stories of abuses by the military and police in Aceh were not covered for fear of reprisals.
Covering both sides of the story in any conflict area is inevitably a great challenge for journalists. It was made very clear that we were under physical threat from both sides as a consequence of our coverage. Despite this challenge, we tried our best to provide independent news coverage. The experience of being an embedded journalist has made me question journalists’ ability to operate freely in a conflict zone. This of course raises the long-standing issue of the role that the media plays in shaping public opinion more broadly.
It saddened me greatly to watch an American reporter boastfully announce from atop an American tank that ‘we are advancing to Baghdad’, as if he were proud to be an active agent in the invasion of Iraq rather than an independent observer and informer of the public.
A’an Suryana (email@example.com) is a Jakarta-based journalist on the National Desk at The Jakarta Post, and has a Masters in Public Policy from the Australian National University (ANU), which he completed with the assistance of an AusAid Scholarship.